An annual conservation poll targeting of Mountain West voters shows considerable concern about the future of nature and the threat of wildfires and climate change in Colorado and other states.
It also reveals plans among many people to get out and enjoy nature and the outdoors even more than was the case last year after the pandemic fueled increased recreational activity on public lands.
Colorado College, which is in Colorado Springs, on Thursday released the results of its 11th annual State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll. Sixty-one percent of respondents overall, and 65% in Colorado, said they are more worried than hopeful about the future of nature, meaning land, water and wildlife.
More than half of respondents and 60% in Colorado consider loss of habitat for fish and wildlife to be a very or extremely serious problem. Sixty percent of overall respondents and more than three-quarters of those polled in Colorado considered uncontrollable wildfires threatening homes and properties to be aa serious problem. Colorado last year experienced its three largest wildfires in recorded history, including the Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction.
Sixty percent of respondents and 63% in Colorado are similarly concerned about the low level of water in rivers, and about half overall and 63% in Colorado consider climate change a very or extremely serious problem.
Seventy-one percent of those polled and nearly three-quarters of respondents in Colorado think wildfires in the West are more of a problem than a decade ago. Respondents pointed more to climate change and drought than any other factors as being the main reasons for the increased threat of fire.
Last year, visits to public lands and waters soared as people dealing with COVID-19 restrictions and economic impacts sought solace and social distancing in the outdoors. Now, public land managers may want to brace for even greater numbers of visitors this year. Fifty-seven percent of respondents overall and 62% in Colorado said that, assuming the pandemic is under control this year, they plan to visit national public lands more during the year. Most of the remaining respondents plan to visit about as much as before.
“So there is pent-up demand to get back out there and be able to experience and enjoy these public lands,” Dave Metz, a Democratic pollster who co-conducted the survey, said during a presentation for media Thursday.
Thirty-one percent of respondents overall, and 37% in Colorado, pointed to overcrowding as something that might limit how often they visit national public lands. That ranked higher than other considerations such as cost and travel time as possible factors that could limit their visits.
The poll was conducted in January and included 3,842 total respondents, including at least 400 per state. Those polled live in Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.2% overall, increasing to as much as 4.8% for individual state results.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents live in cities or suburbs. Thirty-six percent are Republicans, 32% Democrats, and 31% Independents or others, with 1% not indicating their party affiliation.
Surveyors asked western voters about a long list of questions about their views on pro-conservation policies, and consistently two-thirds or more of respondents supported them. Some would reverse actions taken under the Trump administration.
More than 90% of respondents supported requiring oil and gas companies to use updated equipment and technology to prevent methane leaks, and requiring them, rather than state and federal governments, to pay for all of the clean-up and land restoration after drilling.
Two-thirds of respondents overall and 72% in Colorado support gradually transitioning to producing 100% of our energy from renewable sources in 10 to 15 years.
Strong support likewise was shown for measures such as restoring Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands, restoring national monument protection to western sites with archaeological and Native American sites but also oil and gas and mineral deposits, restoring removed protections for threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and restoring limits on drilling and industrial activities that could impact wildlife like imperiled sage-grouse.
Notably, 73% of voters in the states surveyed support an initiative being pursued by President Joe Biden to pursue protection of 30 percent of land and waters by 2030, with 63% of Republicans behind the idea.
Said Metz, “So this really is an area — in a time when we’re talking about unity in setting a policy agenda — this is something that all three parties are strongly behind.”
Fifty-nine percent of respondents said there should be strict limits on where oil and gas development occurs on federal lands in the future, while 25% backed expanded oil and gas development on public lands and 11% want it halted on those lands.
Metz said he thinks the results show a bipartisan consensus on many issues. He said candidates in the West from both parties may occasionally differ on policy, but all point in campaigns to support for public lands, their beauty and recreational opportunities.
“All of them see voicing support for those values as critical to winning election,” he said.
Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster who teamed up with Metz on the survey, said a thread in poll results from the project over the last decade has been that voters feel they can have a robust economy while still protecting public lands, wildlife, air and water.
“There’s a sense that we ought to be able to do both,” she said.
She said she thinks there’s a growing recognition that public lands hold not just enjoyment value but economic value through the outdoor recreation economy. She likewise thinks there’s a growing appreciation of, and concern for, nature, and an increased sense that climate change is affecting people directly, with it combining with drought to contribute to wildfires.
“I think people are seeing some real (climate-change) impacts and connecting the dots in a way that they didn’t do when we first started this survey project,” she said.
Mets said he thinks the survey results should embolden the Biden administration to realize there is a growing recognition that the threat of climate change is real, immediate and requires action, and there is political momentum behind taking that action.
One notable non-conservation finding in the poll is that 69% of respondents are worried about the future of the United States, versus 29% who are hopeful. But — as the nation begins a time when Democrats control both the White House and Congress — 84% of Republicans responding to the poll voiced concern about the country’s future, versus just 52% of Democrats.