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New poll finds growing support for public lands among Westerners

Published February 17, 2014 4:55 pm

Poll • Colorado College survey shows a jump in pollution concerns, but also reveals distaste for federal regulations.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A new bipartisan survey of Western voters finds broad support for protecting public lands and maintaining them under federal control, but it also documents impatience with a regulatory framework that is seen as slowing oil and gas development.

The Conservation in the West Poll, conducted annually by Colorado College, finds a majority are more likely to support candidates who endorse protections for some public lands; tax incentives for landowners who agree to keep their acreage as farms or in a natural state; and increased funding for land-management agencies.

"The West is a major political battlefield this year, and the poll tells us congressional candidates would be wise to consider their position on conservation and land-use issues carefully," said economist Walt Hecox, who directs Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project.

"Utahns want their air, water and land protected, and where a candidate stands on these issues could potentially sway votes," he said.

A bipartisan research team conducted 2,400 telephone interviews in early January with 400 voters in each of six interior Western states: Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Utah voters stood out in the poll for their continued concern about air quality. This year, 67 percent said pollution is a very or extremely serious problem, up 10 points from the previous year.

By the widest margin among the states, 11-to-1, Utah voters said closure of public lands during last fall's U.S. government shutdown hurt small businesses.

"That became the face of the shutdown, people hearing stories how park closings affected people who wanted to visit and also businesses that serve visitors," said Lori Weigel of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. The firm is one of two hired each year to run the poll.

The new findings hardly square with Utah political leadership's dogged assertion of state control over public lands, which cover about two-thirds of Utah.

Scorn for federal control is a common theme for Utah lawmakers, who often allege that the state's public lands and national forests are "managed for maximum combustion" and minimal access by extractive industries and ranchers.

Under a law enacted two years ago, Utah is to assume title to 30 million federal acres by year's end. Few policymakers believe such a transfer is likely any time soon — if ever.

Three-quarters of the 2,400 Westerners polled say they prefer using existing water resources more efficiently, while barely 13 percent want to divert more rivers to meet water demands.

A majority also support reducing bureaucratic obstacles to drilling for oil and gas.

But there is clearly a partisan divide on the issue, with 73 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats wanting more drilling in their states.

Those polled tend to oppose selling public lands, regardless of party affiliation, when the question is framed as a way to reduce the federal deficit.

Opposition to selling federal land jumped to 74 percent in this year's poll, while more than half say they support increased funding to federal land-management agencies.

The pollsters attributed these findings to Westerners' strong association to the publicly held landscapes in their states.

More than 95 percent said they had visited public lands during the past year, and a majority visited such places regularly.

"People like to see themselves connected to these places. They often had a childhood memory of a vacation," Weigel said. "Preserving the natural beauty is one the best things the federal government does."

bmaffly@sltrib.com