A survey of Westerners shows overwhelming support for conservation of the landscape, with strong pluralities agreeing that "national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas, are an essential part" of their state economies.
In the states of Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana, some of which rank among the "reddest" states, politically, in the country, the survey showed a broad bipartisan support for a clean, healthy environment.
Despite the sluggish economy and various calls for more development on public lands, the survey of 2,400 registered voters in thsoe six states found growing support for protection of public lands and resources and a declining belief that protections of these places often are in conflict with strong economies.
The survey was conducted January 2-7, 2012, by two polling firms, one Republican and one Democratic -- Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates -- for Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project. The poll carried a margin of error of + 2.0 percent nationwide and +4.9 statewide.
Among its findings:
* While 65 percent of Westerners identify themselves as "conservationists," just 29 percent affiliated themselves with the Tea Party movement, and just 25 percent connected themselves to the Occupy Wall Street movement;
* Whereas 74 percent of those surveyed in 2009 said land protection and conservation can go hand-in-hand with a strong economy, by 2012 that percent had risen to 78 percent;
* Whereas 24 percent of those surveyed in 2009 voiced the opinion that conservation of public lands sometimes is in conflict with strong economies, by 2012 that percentage had dropped to 19 percent;
* Among those respondents in this year's survey who identified themselves as Republicans, 76 percent were of the opinion that natural resources can be protected without harming economic conditions, an opinion shared by 84 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Independents, and 74 percent of Tea Partiers.
Time and again the findings pointed to strong support for the environment. Two-thirds of those surveyed said the country's "energy policy should prioritize expanding use of clean renewable energy and reducing our need for more coal, oil and gas. Even in states like Wyoming and Montana, which are more often associated with fossil fuels, voters view renewable energy as a local job creator."
Additionally, there was strong disagreement that regulations such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and dozens of other environmental policies should be held in abeyance for the U.S. Border Patrol in its efforts to stem illegal border crossings. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has been a key proponent of that measure, though this poll shows he's out of step with his own constituents.
In Arizona, the state seen as having perhaps the strongest problem with illegal border crossings, 73 percent of the survey's respondents opposed suspending the environmental regulations in the battle against illegal immigration; in New Mexico, 65 percent of those surveyed were against that move; in Colorado the percentage was 68 percent, in Utah 72 percent, in Wyoming 69 percent, and in Montana 66 percent.
Dave Metz, a pollster for Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, said the survey's results pointed to a decided difference of opinion with many state leaders and those in Congress.
“Western voters consistently believe that conservation helps create and protect jobs for their states,” Mr. Metz said. “In fact, by a 17-point margin, voters are more likely to say that environmental regulations have a positive impact on jobs in their state rather than a negative one.”
In Utah, for example, while 69 percent of the state residents surveyed for the poll endorsed Environmental Protection Agency efforts to update Clean Air Act standards, Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this year wrote the the Obama Administration to challenge EPA regulations to limit toxic pollution from power plants, the pollsters noted. And while "some members of Utah's congressional delegation are supporting legislation that would suspend environmental protections within 100 miles of U.S. borders to help stop illegal immigration; by a margin of 72 percent to 20 percent, voters in Utah (with similar results across the West) feel this proposal is unnecessary," they added.
"The poll results show that voters of all stripes, including conservatives, believe protecting clean air, clean water, and our natural heritage is consistent with traditional conservative values,” said Philip Carlson, Utah Coordinator for Republicans for Environmental Protection. “We call on our elected representatives to listen to their constituents and embrace the conservative ethic of good stewardship.”
In Arizona, the survey found strong support for a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park, with 70 percent of voters saying that the impact of mining on land and water is a serious problem in Arizona.
“Spending by Arizona hunters and anglers directly supports 21,000 jobs and generates $124-million in state and local taxes. This especially benefits rural communities like those surrounding the Grand Canyon. Why wouldn't we take steps to protect our parks, national forests, and wildlife habitat?” asked Tom Mackin, president of the Arizona Wildlife Federation and long-time resident of northern Arizona.
Arizona respondents to the survey also voiced lukewarm support for Gov. Jan Brewer, with just 47 percent saying they approve of the job she's doing. That was the lowest approval rating of any governor of the Western states polled.
“I’m not surprised with the poll results. In spite of what we hear from many Arizona elected officials, in my 35 years conducting and evaluating public opinion research in Arizona, it has always come across loud and clear that my fellow Arizonans (regardless of political affiliation) see themselves as conservationists and demand clean air, clean water and protections for the remarkable public lands that make our state so unique," said Richard Mayol of the Grand Canyon Trust.
And in Wyoming those contacted for the survey spoke about the importance of a clean, healthy environment to their economy.
“I think we’ve understood this here in Wyoming for a long time,” said Ken Cramer, owner of Cross Country Connections, an outdoor store in Laramie. “It doesn’t matter what your political party is. People live here because we care about the outdoors. People want to hunt, fish, have the outdoor experience – otherwise we’d leave.”
He added that the national forests, national parks, and public lands that lie within Wyoming's borders are key to the state’s economy.
“Tourism and outdoor recreation is the second-biggest industry in the state. We have three out of the top 10 destinations in the U.S. for snowmobiling," said Mr. Cramer. "Skiing, camping, rock climbing, hunting – it’s all huge here. We’ve got to have places to recreate and we’ve got to take care of them. Clean air, clean water and snow are vital to our activities and, of course, for our lives.”
At the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan said similar bipartisan support for national parks was evident last week at America's Summit on National Parks.
"One of the highlights (of the Summit) was seeing both Michelle Obama, Mrs. Obama, and Mrs. (Laura) Bush, seeing both (Interior) Secretary Ken Salazar and former Secretery Dirk Kempthorne, seeing both John Podesta and Mike Gerson ... time and again you saw at the Summit very different political views coming together around national parks and strongly endorsing the park idea and needing to advance it as we approach the (National Park Service) centennial," he said Monday. "The parks can and are playing a significant unifying role throughout the country, and that was visible at the Summit."
The pollsters also pointed out that the results "echo the sentiments of more than 100 economists, including three Nobel Laureates ... who recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him to create and invest in new federal protected lands such as national parks, wilderness and monuments. Studies have shown that together with investment in education and access to markets, protected public lands are significant contributors to economic growth."
“The depth and breadth of the connection between westerners and the land is truly remarkable -- when people are telling us that public lands are essential to their economy, and that they support continued investments in conservation, even in these difficult economic times,” said Lori Weigel, who for Public Opinion Strategies. “Westerners are telling us that we've got to find a way to protect clean air, clean water, and parks in their states.”
You can find the poll's results, (and other related survey details, such as support for elected officials, and more specific state results) at this site.