Politics and a Love for the Outdoors in the Rocky Mountain West

Standing behind a podium in a crowded conference room, Lori Weigel looked to eager faces of a small portion of the 50,000 attendees of the Outdoor Industry Association’s first Denver winter show. Weigel, who is involved with Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll, remarked that “it’s rare for a pollster to have a standing-room only audience.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Coombs

Weigel was one of the seven speakers on a panel titled “State of the Rockies and Conservation in the West: A Discussion of Bipartisan Issues and Opinions in the Rocky Mountain West.” The discussion centered on CC’s Conservation in the West Poll, which is part of the larger State of the Rockies Project. For the past eight years, the poll has been gathering data from several states in the U.S. to assess voters’ interest in issues of conservation.

On Jan. 24 at 10 a.m., the poll’s 2018 report was released. At the time of its release, speakers, journalists, senate candidates, and outdoor enthusiasts from Colorado and other parts of the country gathered to discuss the results and their implications. The speakers on the panel included Amy Roberts, executive director for Outdoor Industry Association; Travis Campbell, president of Smartwool; Maite Arce, founder of the Hispanic Access Foundation; Walt Hecox, founder of Colorado College State of the Rockies Project; State of the Rockies partners Weigel and Dave Metz; and Jennifer Rokala, executive director of Center for Western Priorities.

The overall atmosphere of the event was one of enthusiasm. Although the problems at hand—the lack of steps being taken to combat climate change, loss of public land, and other issues—were serious ones, there seemed to be a sense of empowerment from knowing that everyone in the room was devoted to the same cause.

Hecox began the event by introducing the project and the poll. His presentation outlined the history of Colorado Springs and the role of natural resources in that history, bringing up how CC has been involved in resource management for over 14 decades. The State of the Rockies Project itself has been going on for 15 years and “seeks to increase public understanding of vital issues affecting the Rocky Mountain West.” Meanwhile, the Conservation in the West Poll is a few years younger, and, as its name suggests, focuses more on issues of conservation.

Rokala and Metz, both involved with the collection of data, presented the results of the poll. Some of the questions that residents of participating states (Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, and Arizona)  answered in the poll include whether or not they identify as a conservationist, approve of the way the Trump administration is handling issues related to the environment, and think the outdoor recreation economy is important to the economic future of their state. In addition, the poll addressed whether residents are in favor of or opposed to eliminating protections for national monuments, and whether or not they thought inadequate water supplies and uncontrollable wildfires are serious problems.

As most of the speakers on the panel emphasized, the results overwhelmingly seemed to indicate that Americans in the West are far more concerned with conservation than most people would think. For example, 72 percent of all the people interviewed thought that our dependence  on fossil fuels was at least a somewhat serious problem. Also, 90 percent of people interviewed agreed strongly or very strongly with the statement that national monuments are “important places to be conserved for future generations.” Perhaps one of the most striking results that speakers and audience members alike continued to return to was that 76 percent of interviewees said they consider themselves conservationists. In a country that recently elected a president who does not emphasize conservation and even refuses to acknowledge that climate change exists, this is surprising.

There are many implications of these results. One of the main implications that speakers focused on is the idea that—as Roberts put it— “Outdoor recreation is a very bipartisan issue.” Nevertheless, although climate change denial is still a serious issue in the U.S., and some are still not making the connection that their beloved outdoor spaces are at risk, the desire to keep these places healthy and safe is not exclusive to certain political ideologies. That is why projects like the Conservation in the West Poll are so important; they highlight the fact that often, as Hecox noted, we believe that politicians think the same way we do and thus look to them for guidance. However, it’s in our hands to make decisions and stand behind causes that align with what we actually believe, and it’s time for politicians to start listening to that.

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