A poll release Thursday by Colorado College suggests a disconnect between the priorities of western voters when it comes to public lands, and those of the Trump administration’s energy-dominance agenda.
The college’s 9th annual State of the Rockies survey also identified increasing concern among westerners about climate change.
The poll found that about two-thirds of respondents want Congress to ensure protection of water, air quality and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on federal land, while about a quarter of respondents want it to ensure production of more domestic energy by maximizing how much land is available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining.
“There’s an overwhelming sentiment that conservation rather than resource extraction ought to be guiding our management of these lands,” Democratic pollster Dave Metz told reporters in a conference call Thursday. He and Republican pollster Lori Weigel conducted this month’s cell phone and land line survey of about 3,200 people, including some 400 registered voters in Colorado and each of seven other western states.
At least 60 percent advised placing an emphasis on public lands protection over energy production in every state surveyed except Wyoming, where 49 percent prioritized protection, and 41 percent, production.
Eighty-two percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans favored emphasizing protection over production, with 37 percent of Republicans wanting production emphasized instead.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents said climate change is a serious problem, up from 61 percent in the 2016 State of the Rockies poll. Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans consider the problem to be serious.
Seventy-seven percent of Coloradans surveyed called climate change a serious problem.
“The poll … makes it clear that our state voters view climate change as a major threat to our way of life,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who briefly joined Thursday’s conference call on the poll’s results.
Polis said there is “a clear mandate from Colorado voters to protect our public land, to take action to reverse the harmful impact of climate change and to move towards a future of clean, affordable, renewable energy.”
He noted that he ran on such priorities, and that his administration has set a goal reaching 100 percent renewable energy on Colorado’s electricity grid by 2040.
Three-quarters of those who were surveyed consider rollbacks of environmental laws to be a serious problem. Two-thirds call policies removing national monument protections from lands with archaeological and native American sites as well as oil, gas and mineral deposits to be a bad change, with 13 percent calling it a good change. Sixty percent say the same in the case of removing Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands, with 17 percent favoring the move.
Fifty-five percent oppose reductions in public comment periods for proposed changes affecting public lands such as oil and gas leasing and mining, with 17 percent in favor, while half of respondents oppose allowing increased oil and gas development on 80 percent of previously identified critical habitat for greater sage-grouse, with 21 percent calling that a good change.
“These policy changes are more likely to be viewed as bad ideas than good ideas by voters across party lines, in every state and every type of community,” the pollsters say in their poll result materials. “For example, voters living in small town and rural areas of the West tend to reject the policy changes, although not as strongly as those in urban and suburban areas of the region.”
Corina McKendry, director of Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, said that over the years the poll has consistently found bipartisan support for protecting public lands and outdoor spaces.
“That a leadership agenda out of step with those values is met with disapproval in the West is not surprising,” she said.
She added, “the rejection of the current administration’s priorities is particularly intense here.”
Interior Department spokesman Eli Nachmany said by email, “This poll presents a false choice between responsible energy development and conservation. Dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, the promise of America's public lands system has been multiple-use. The Trump administration is striking a balance on federal lands, collaborating with states, local communities, and private partners to keep the great outdoors great, including the expansion of access to hundreds of thousands of acres of public land.
“At the same time, the President recognizes that American energy dominance is the path to American sovereignty, security, and economic freedom.”
Twenty percent of respondents said the next Interior secretary should base decisions on science and emphasize conservation of wildlife and nature. Fifteen percent said that person should be independent from industry, 9 percent said he or she should increase access to public lands, and 8 percent said he or she should increase energy development and mining.
With the recent departure of Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary, Deputy Secretary and Rifle native David Bernhardt, who previously has represented oil and gas and other industries as an attorney, is currently the acting secretary and also is considered a candidate to replace Zinke.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance oil and gas trade group, said about the poll, “The responses were what you’d expect for a survey without any context on complex issues. Of course we all support clean air, clean water, wildlife and public lands, so the survey has limited value when setting policy for public lands.
“The survey steered respondents to think about public lands that are already managed for conservation and recreation only, while ignoring the working public lands that are appropriate for energy development. In addition, the questions asking about policy issues were misleading at best, or outright false, so of course the responses were as expected.”
According to the pollsters, 84 percent of respondents consider low water levels in rivers to be a serious concern. Eighty-six percent view wildfires as a problem, up from 77 percent two years ago.
Two-thirds of respondents said fires in the West are a greater problem than a decade ago, and respondents identified climate change and drought as the main reasons for more fires, ahead of other factors such as less forest logging and thinning and more people living in fire-prone areas.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents said solar power generation should be encouraged in their state, while 56 percent said wind power should be encouraged; 26 percent, natural gas; 13 percent, nuclear; and 8 percent, coal.
Polis said climate is shrinking water supplies, affecting industries such as agriculture and skiing, and harming rural economies.
“One of the most important things we can to reduce the impacts of climate change is to move towards a clean, renewable energy future,” he said.
McKendry said the issue of a fair, just transition for fossil-fuel workers to a clean-energy economy is important, and decisionmakers and those in academics are increasingly thinking about how “to ensure a greener economy truly benefits everyone.”
Polis said more than 500,000 people already work in outdoor recreation and tourism in Colorado. The new poll was released this week in conjunction with the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, which was moved to Denver from Salt Lake City last year due to concerns about the positions of Utah lawmakers on land conservation and federal lands.
Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association, told reporters Thursday that outdoor recreation and public lands conservation issues played a key role in last fall’s mid-term elections. Candidates focused in part on those issues, which played a part in attracting voters and helping guide voters’ decisions, she said.
Metz said climate change has become a top issue among Democrats, helping energize them and boost Democratic turnout last year.
“There’s a range of data to suggest that … will likely be the case in 2020 as well,” he said.
Eighty-seven percent of the poll respondents said the outdoor recreation economy is economically important to the future of their state. Roberts said her group has been successful in getting outdoor recreation offices created in 12 states (Colorado has one) and offices in seven more states are in the works.
“That will be a focus for us in the years ahead and we see a lot of traction there based on the poll results,” she said.
Other poll findings:
• More than three out of five respondents said being near public lands and trails was a factor in their decision of where to live.
• Seven in 10 described themselves as outdoor recreationists.
• Three of four respondents called loss of wildlife habitat a serious problem.
• More than two-thirds indicated support for a small increase in local taxes or fees to protect water, conserve wildlife habitat and ensure opportunities for outdoor recreation.
• Three of four respondents are concerned about a lack of resources for public land.
• Eighty-three percent of respondents want Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by royalties from offshore oil and gas development and expired last fall.