Public Opinion and Politics of Public Land

Every year, the Colorado College State of the Rockies program completes the Conservation in the West Poll. Exploring bi-partisan opinions in each state and for the Rocky Mountain West region, the poll surveys views on conservation, the environment, energy, the role of government, trade-offs with economies, and citizen priorities. This year, the survey included polling in the states of Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. 2,000 interviews and 400 voters were included in the poll this year. Given the recent changes to public land policy throughout the country, the poll had even more gravity this year. Congress just changed the valuation process for public lands to make sales and transferences easier. However, according to the Conservation in the West Poll, this is contrary to what voters want.

The Republican Party platform calls for the establishment of procedures to streamline the transfer of public lands back to the states. In every state polled except Utah, the majority of voters do not support transferring national public lands to state control. Those in opposition fear that land held by state and local governments is more likely to be sold to developers and private entities, especially when these governments are faced with the costs of fire mitigation and general upkeep. The transfer would also decrease the land available to outdoorsmen. In an interview, perhaps influenced by his sportsmen sons, President Donald Trump declared, “I don’t like the idea [of transferring lands to state and local governments] because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.” This statement directly contradicts the Republican Party’s stance on public land management.

President Trump also pushed for the  simultaneous use of public land for energy production and recreation. He did not provide much detail but mirrored Donald Trump Jr.’s assertion from a talk in Mesa County, stating, “We can have grazing, we can have energy, we can have hunting and fishing on the same lands.” The public opinion tends to disagree.  According to the poll, more than two-thirds of voters in the Rockies support conservation efforts over energy production. The majority supported increased access to public lands for outdoorsmen while opposing increased drilling and mining by large margins.

When asked about President Trump’s budget plan for the Department of the Interior, which includes a 12 percent decrease from the previous year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said, “The President’s budget sends a strong signal that we will protect and responsibly manage these vast areas of our country ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’” His response directly contradicts his promise to push back against any cut higher than 10 percent only weeks earlier.  The Department of the Interior manages approximately 20 percent of U.S. territory, and was already experiencing employee shortages within institutions like the National Park Service. The new plan calls for the redirection of money from National Heritage Areas and other groups towards the maintenance of national parks but cuts funding for everyday operations. Combined with increasing visitation, the reduced budget could be very detrimental. How will the budget cuts effect 82 percent of voters who support the work of the National Park Service?

Colorado is poised to benefit from the pushback against legislative changes by other states. Utah, for example, lost a major outdoor recreation trade show as outdoor manufacturers and companies protested Utah’s attempt to repeal the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Colorado will make a bid to host the trade show, which has earned Utah $45 million per year in addition to tens of thousands of visitors.

Once again capitalizing on Utah’s tendency to ignore public opinion, both of Colorado’s senators announced bills less than a day after Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah rescinded a proposal that would have resulted in the sale of 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 different western states. The bills address water rights, wildfire prevention, and the growth of Colorado’s national parks. They also approve the addition of land to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument by a private donor. Scott Braden, a wilderness advocate for Conservation Colorado, encouraged  Colorado legislators to campaign against the repeal of the methane rule, a regulation implemented by President Barack Obama that requires limiting methane emissions at oil and gas drilling sites. Unsatisfied, Braden claimed the bills passed are insignificant and ineffective at compensating for the less conservation-minded public lands policies they are pursuing.

According to Conservation in the West Poll, more voters in the Rocky Mountain region are identifying themselves as conservationists every year. Hunters and fishermen are among the most likely to call themselves conservationists. Voters are against increased energy production on public lands across party lines. Should the Republican Party abandon or at least ease up on their push for de-federalizing and increasing energy production on public lands? The numbers scream yes.

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