Confrontation only part of story when considering opinions on public lands
It’d be very easy, looking at local and national headlines and editorial comments, to conclude that opinions on public lands issues and associated environmental concerns are tilted strongly toward development, privatization and state or local primacy rather than preservation and conservation.
Last week’s meeting in De Beque regarding energy development on the Thompson Divide, Sunday’s Daily Sentinel editorial on that same subject, lingering differences over local travel management plans and the back and forth over national park status for the Colorado National Monument all might support that perspective.
But opinions expressed by louder and well-organized voices on all sides of public lands issues don’t necessarily reflect those held by a majority of Coloradans.
For four years, the State of the Rockies Project at Colorado College has commissioned polling in six western states done jointly by firms associated with both major political parties. Results of the latest survey, released earlier this year, indicate somewhat different feelings about public lands than are usually found underneath headlines featuring confrontation and argument.
In Colorado, 72 percent of those questioned would be more likely to vote for congressional candidates supporting enhanced protections for the public lands so important to our tourism, outdoor recreation, agricultural and energy economies.
Nearly three out of four Coloradans surveyed (73 percent) thought eroding wildlife habitat was a serious problem. That same percentage also thought pollution of lakes, streams and rivers was a serious concern.
More than three-quarters of Coloradans polled (78 percent) think conservation, recycling and wise use are the answers to water shortages. Only 14 percent support moving water from less-populated areas to areas where more people live.
Thirty percent of Colorado voters thought oil and gas drilling on public lands should be strictly limited, while 18 percent said those lands should be generally open to exploration and development. More were in the middle, with 50 percent thinking some drilling should be allowed but that environmentally sensitive areas should be protected.
Other questions looked at energy-related hot topics, hydraulic fracturing and local control over drilling and production.
Most Coloradans (84 percent) know about hydraulic fracturing. Twenty-eight percent think there should be stricter regulation of that oil and gas industry practice. Another 29 percent think enforcement of existing regulations should be strengthened.
More than half the respondents (55 percent) would allow local communities to also regulate fracking, while 22 percent think it should be the role of the state to set statewide standards. One-fifth (20 percent) of those surveyed offered no opinion, one reason we’ll be awash in pro-and-con advertising should proposals for some degree of local control of drilling and production activities make the ballot.
No survey question addressed opinions on a statewide fracking ban. Perhaps that’s because, contrary to recently ramped-up spin attempts by opponents of potential ballot issues, there’s no such thing being proposed for the November ballot either here in Colorado or in the other five states where polling occurred.
With all the controversy in western Colorado regarding federal agencies and their management of public lands, these findings stand out.
The National Park Service enjoyed an 85 percent approval rating among Coloradans surveyed with the U.S. Forest Service right behind at 80 percent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that will decide whether or not to list the sage-grouse as endangered or threatened, won 74 percent approval with the BLM at 54 percent, likely because agency activities such as oil and gas leasing and travel management are center stage.
Frequent calls for privatization of public lands didn’t fare well. Only 16 percent of the Colorado voters surveyed supported selling off public lands while 77 percent opposed that suggestion.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Coloradans feel a strong connection to public lands.
Almost 4 in 10 (39 percent) of Colorado residents polled were “users” and had visited public lands 6-20 times in the past year. Another third (34 percent) had visited 1-5 times and a surprising 22 percent had tallied more than 20 visits. Only 5 percent had not visited public lands in the past year.
Somewhere, between headlines and editorials, the slogans and spin from all sides, maybe there’s a reasoned discussion to be had about all of the above issues.