Poll: Westerners support presidential land protection, oppose state takeovers

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), first protected as a national monument in 1908.

Credit: Miguel Montesinos, flickr.

A new survey finds that most western voters support presidential authority to protect public lands under national monument status, and oppose state takeover attempts of national public lands.

In the bipartisan poll, versions of which are sponsored annually by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project, 80 percent of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming said they support future presidents using the Antiquities Act to protect national monuments.

The Antiquities Act has been used by almost every president, and while it enjoys popular backing and support from many lawmakers, there have nonetheless been several high-profile attempts by members of Congress to weaken the law.

Additionally, the survey suggests that an insidious campaign to pressure state governments to take over public lands so they can be privatized or auctioned off does not enjoy broad support. Nearly 60 percent said they oppose the sale of “significant holdings of public lands” back to the states. This issue is especially relevant now, with local extremist groups, state-level politicians and even some members of Congress all invoking similar anti-federal rhetoric to legitimize land takeover attempts.

Infographic: The American West loves public lands

Key survey results:

  • Most voters in Arizona (84%), Colorado (84%), Montana (77%), Nevada (78%), New Mexico (79%), Utah (66%) and Wyoming (72%) said they support future presidents continuing to use the Antiquities Act to protect public lands as national monuments (80% overall).
  • Two prospective monuments enjoyed strong support. Most Arizonans (73%) and Utahns (66%) support new national monument designations in the greater Grand Canyon and Bears Ears regions, respectively.
  • Two existing monuments whose presidential designations were initially met with controversy are now seen as positive for their states. Only 25% of Utahns viewed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s protection as a bad thing, and only 11% of Montanans saw Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument as a bad thing.
  • Most voters across the seven states surveyed oppose the sale of “significant holdings of public lands” (60%), and most oppose granting state governments control over national public lands (58%). Voters in Arizona (65%) and New Mexico (63%) led opposition to land sell-offs.
  • 75% wanted Congress to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), including at least 70% of Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. The survey was conducted prior to a temporary three-year extension of LWCF; the program still needs permanent reauthorization and full funding.
  • 72% said that national public lands help the economy, with only 6% feeling that they hurt the economy.
  • A large majority of western voters (80%) support allowing the U.S. Forest Service to treat wildfires as natural disasters. Currently, the agency is forced to raid other programs’ budgets to fight wildfires. Ironically, this includes programs intended for fuel mitigation—activities that help maintain forest health and reduce the likelihood of future catastrophic wildfires.
  • 80% of westerners support requiring upgrades to reduce methane flaring and leaks from natural gas development, at least 73% in each state surveyed. Greenhouse gas emissions from energy development on public lands are considered a significant “blind spot” in U.S. efforts to address climate change, and methane wasted by venting, flaring and leaky infrastructure makes up a significant chunk of those emissions.
  • A majority of voters across the seven western states surveyed (58%) support an increase in royalty fees for oil and gas extraction on public lands. These royalty rates are sorely outdated and do not reflect the modern value of public resources.
  • More westerners would want to encourage solar and wind power production in their state (63% combined) than any other energy source--and the top preferred energy source in each state is either solar or wind power.

Western voters have a history of strong conservation values

This year’s results are in keeping with westerners’ strong pro-conservation values more generally. In the 2015 edition of the survey, voters overwhelmingly identified a healthy, outdoor lifestyle (88%) and proximity to public lands (80%) as factors in their decision to live and stay in the West.

The 2014 poll found that voters were more likely to support a political candidate who supports enhancing protection for public lands and increased funding for land management agencies, and less likely to vote for a candidate who supports selling public lands to reduce the budget deficit, or reducing funding for land management agencies. The 2013 survey found that a strong majority considered public lands to be an essential part of their states’ respective economies.

Report: How oil, gas and coal companies avoid paying their fair share

The 2016 survey shows that westerners’ conservation values are still going strong, and lawmakers in Washington DC ought to heed its results. This means resisting attempts to gut the Antiquities Act; standing up against takeover attempts of our shared national lands; permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund; and supporting smart development of renewable energy, sited away from sensitive wildlife areas and wilderness-quality lands.

More: We must fight attempts to take over public lands