New polling indicates Western voters strongly value public lands, with convincing majorities saying they are "essential" to their state's economy.
Even in Utah, where the political leadership intends to wrest control of federal lands, 74 percent say these places support the economy and recreation, as opposed to thwarting job creation, according to polling conducted by a bipartisan research team and released Thursday by Colorado College. By a 20-point margin Utah voters oppose selling off public lands, where remote scenery popular with outdoor recreation overlies rich mineral resources.
Such findings would appear to lend weight to Utah conservationists' call to protect Greater Canyonlands, currently the subject of a Democratic-sponsored resolution before the state Legislature, and other delicate landscapes that draw thousands of visitors. Federal agencies manage nearly two-thirds of Utah's territory.
"Westerners see the permanent protection of their public lands as an economic imperative, and essential to their quality of life," said economist Walt Hecox, who directs Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project. "Decision-makers would do well to take notice and cure the often one-sided tendency to pursue development rather than protection that we've seen emerge over the last four years."
The college's polling, conducted Jan. 5-10, queried 2,400 voters in the six Rocky Mountains states by cell phone and land lines and in Spanish and English. The findings, which have a 2 percent margin of error, were hailed in the conservation community.
"With 59 percent polled supporting 'strong standards' to limit drilling near recreation areas, water sources and wildlife, we see strong public backing for taking a more balanced approach one which recognizes that our options for energy are many but our options for conservation are limited and dwindling every day," said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society.
Although an oil and gas boom is unfolding in the West, nearly two-thirds of those polled were unaware that drilling is taking place on public lands.
Energy interests contend Western states are missing out on a bonanza because of environmental constraints on drilling on public lands.
Lifting such limits could increase GDP by $127 billion and create more than half a million jobs, according to a study released Tuesday by the industry-supported Institute for Energy Research.
"Increased energy production on our nation's public lands is a healthy way to bolster revenues, create jobs, and provide greater energy security," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a press statement. "It is increasingly frustrating to know that our country could be far better off if the President would stop placating his special interest group allies and put the interests of this country first."
Yet some economists have built an opposite case that protecting public lands can drive employment and income growth. A recent study by Headwaters Economics found that for every 10,000 acres of protected federal land within a rural county's borders, that county enjoys, on average, an additional $436 in per-capita income.
"The West is outpacing the rest of the country in terms of income growth, employment growth. We have an enviable quality of life," said Ray Rasker, executive director of the Montana-based Headwaters. "A lot of CEOs use this as a way to recruit talent. It's an advantage to live in the West. Employers are promoting these protected lands as an economic asset."
The new survey also documented growing concern that children aren't spending enough time outdoors. Half said this is a very or extremely serious problem.
In other noteworthy results for Utah, 81 percent said they intend to visit a national park this year; 91 percent engage in an outdoor activity regularly; 44 percent hunt or fish; and 47 percent said they would view an elected official of either party more favorably if they supported public lands.
"Conservation is a great way for a candidate to take a position that appeals across party lines," pollster Dave Metz said. "The problem is most voters aren't aware where their representatives stand on these critical issues. Their suspicious was that their representative placed a lower priority [on conservation] than they did."
Conservation in the West survey
Key findings in a poll of 2,400 Western voters:
74 percent • Believe national parks, forests, wildlife areas and monuments attract high-quality jobs.
52 percent • Say public lands are a job creator.
63 percent • Describe themselves as conservationists.
Most • Say kids aren't spending enough time outdoors.
75 percent • Of Utah voters approve of Gov. Gary Herbert's performance.