Poll Data Speaks to Value of Nature in the West

     (CN) – Residents of six Western states believe that their economic success hinges on the protection of national parks and other natural splendor, a bipartisan survey shows.
     Of the registered voters polled, 63 percent called themselves conservationists, and said that they are inclined to consider those ethos when they vote, according to the 2013 Conservation in the West Poll of 2,400 residents of Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project conducted the poll for the third consecutive year.
     “Voters are inclined to take a positive view of a candidate who espouses pro-conservation positions,” the poll states. “When asked about a candidate who supports protecting public lands, a majority of voters say that position alone would give them a ‘more favorable’ impression of that candidate. Moreover, voters are even more positively impressed with a pro-conservation GOP candidate than with a Democratic candidate.”
     While 50 percent of Republicans said that they would more favorably view a party candidate who supports the protection of public lands, that figure jumped to 69 percent among Democrats polled.
     The Rockies Project’s faculty director Walt Hecox highlighted this discrepancy in an interview with Courthouse News.
     “The conclusion I would draw is that Republicans at their peril follow the mentality that people don’t care about the land, and that they want to ‘drill baby, drill’,” Hecox said.
     “The conservation and preservation sentiment in the West is extremely strong, even after falling off the Great Recession cliff,” he added. “As an economist, I’m actually quite surprised that the sentiment for conservation and reasonable energy production is as strong as it is.”
     Poll data also show that voters in the six states are increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of drought and the consequences of increased energy production on public lands. Some 61 percent of voters agree that “the increase in extreme weather events such as wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes is at least in part due to climate change.”
     The poll suggests that more and more Westerners see public lands as important to their quality of life and the economy of their state.
     A majority of 56 percent agreed that environmentally sensitive public lands deserve permanent protection.
     “Westerners tell us that public lands have immense benefits for their state – both for them personally and for the economy of their state,” the poll states. “A majority of 52 percent perceive public lands to be a job creator in their state, and almost no one perceives those lands as holding their state back economically (just 7 percent believe having public lands costs jobs). Three-quarters (74 percent) believe our national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas help to attract high quality employers and good jobs to their state.
     And, there is near unanimity – 91 percent agreeing – that public lands like national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an ‘essential part’ of their state’s economy.” (Parentheses in original.)
     Westerners do still understand the need to use public lands for energy production, mining and other extractive activities.
     They just want it to be “smarter,” Hecox emphasized.
     “It would be wrong to take away from this poll that people are against any fossil fuel activity,” he said. “What they are saying is that we want it to be in areas that are not extremely delicate or fragile.”
     For example, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is booming in several Western states, and that has caused natural gas prices to drop, to the detriment of the coal industry. Many analysts, including Hecox, see natural gas as “bridge fuel” to an age when renewables will rule. In the meantime, as fracking heats up to build that bridge, the discussion in many places focuses on “smarter fossil fuel production,” not on nixing production entirely, Hecox said.
     “The survey clearly says people would like in the long-term a much larger dependence on renewable energy services, but the bridge to that future is natural gas, and I view the discussions going on probably in most of the states about the details of fossil fuels as pretty healthy,” Hecox said.
     Compared with other energy-production upswings, the fracking boom exists outside of the West. This is giving Easterners a taste of the environmental concerns and compromises that have plagued the other side of the country for generations.
     “It used to be that oil production was mostly located in the Rockies and that was a time when we were a sacrifice zone,” Hecox said. “Now, to my own amusement, people in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, who never cared much about our environmental consequences of fossil fuel activity, are absolutely furious and hysterical about the same energy activity that is now in their backyard that’s been in our backyard for 100 years.”
     The extraction and resource-based economy that has ruled the West for most of its history as a region of the United States has gradually shifted to a service and amenities-based economy over the last 40 years or so, but the boom-and-bust nature of that economy likely won’t change anytime soon, Hecox said.
     “We have made a major transition away from agriculture and mining, but we will always have boom-bust,” he said. “We are a resource-based economy. But now, the poll says that the resources people are extremely interested in saving are the amenity resources – the land, the water, the environment. And those still have boom-bust cycles.
     “Places like Moab or Telluride or Steamboat, are extremely dependent on a single industry, not mining anymore or forestry, but in a sense recreation and tourism. So we are not moving away from boom-bust; we’ve changed the resource base that drives the boom-bust.”
     A major reasons for the seemingly solid, bipartisan support for conservation in the West is that the “amenity economy is tied to the health of the land and the water,” Hecox added.
     “There is an instinct that comes out of this poll, and it was true last year also, that people at a very fundamental level understand that we better not screw up what makes this such a unique place to live,” he said

%d bloggers like this: