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Mountain West Perspectives

Photo courtesy of the Colorado State of the Rockies project

Sun Edison Solar installation near Mosca, Colo., in the summer of 2008.

Land protection still a priority
in the Rocky Mountain West

Colorado College's 2013 Conservation in the West poll finds that
91 percent of Westerners say public lands essential to states' economies

By: Walter E. Hecox, Faculty Director,
Colorado College, State of the Rockies Project

and Debbie Kelley, State of the Rockies Project Writer
for Mountain West News
Feb. 13, 2013

Nearly four years ago, when the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama signed landmark conservation legislation known as the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, a geyser of great hope erupted. Environmentalists, academicians, politicians and the general public lauded the new laws that protected wilderness and rivers, and established new national parks, trails and monuments.

Now, as President Obama steps into his second term, the praise for his previous commitment to protect the nation’s scenic lakes, canyons, mountains and rivers on federal land is turning toward concern.

The Center for American Progress recently determined that President Obama is lagging far behind the past four United States presidents in terms of the amount of public land protected while in office – just 2.6 million acres. That falls short of even the efforts of President George W. Bush, who protected 3.8 million acres and was widely criticized during his time in the White House for his abysmal environmental record. President Bill Clinton held the best record of recent times, protecting nearly 27 million acres during his administration.

A new survey shows Westerners very strongly link public lands to economic prosperity and a much sought-after quality of life. The 2013 Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West poll concludes the majority of residents in six Western states rejects selling off public lands for private enterprise, favors protections for sensitive lands subject to drilling and identifies renewable energy production as a priority.

The challenges of the past four years -- the most severe recession since the Great Depression, a sluggish economic recovery, sustained and brutal drought in the Southwest, other harsh weather events such as wildfires, unrest abroad that threatens the access and supply of foreign oil to the U.S. and looming issues related to the “fiscal cliff” – have negatively impacted the entire nation.

Residents in Western states now are speaking out.

The Conservation in the West survey, undertaken for the third year in a row, is a bipartisan opinion poll conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. Conducted Jan. 5 through Jan. 10, the survey queried 2,400 registered voters in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

Survey respondents expressed nearly unanimous – 91 percent – agreement that public lands are an essential part of their state’s economy. Furthermore, 71 percent of all participants, who represent a cross-section of the general population, oppose proposals to sell off public lands and reject arguments for doing so.

Other key findings:

  • 79 percent believe public lands support their local economy and enhance their overall quality of life.

  • 74 percent say national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas help attract high-quality employers and good jobs to their state.

  • 67 percent totally oppose proposals in Congress to sell off some public lands.

  • 52 percent perceive public lands to be a job creator in their state, up from 46 percent in 2012.

  • 56 percent support some oil and gas drilling on public land if environmentally sensitive places are protected.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama called for “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy” and announced he would open offshore oil and gas resources and allow development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

But the public remains confused about what is actually happening regarding energy. Records indicate oil production on federal land was down 14 percent in 2011, after rising 15 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2009.

The Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C. based progressive think tank, claims the Obama administration has leased nearly two and a half times more land to oil and gas companies than it has permanently protected for recreational use, ensuring clean air and water, and historical purposes.

The Department of Energy, in a May 15, 2012 press release on "unused oil and gas leases" claims more than half of federal onshore leased acreage in the lower 48 states remains idle – neither producing nor under active exploration or development by companies who hold those leases.

Given the complexities of these issues, trends and claims, Western voters do not have a good grasp of what is happening around them. For example, drilling on public lands has flown under the radar of most Westerners. Despite the fact that more than 39 million acres of public lands – including land in six national parks – are currently leased by oil and gas companies, only 34 percent of those interviewed for the 2013 Conservation in the West survey knew with certainty that oil and gas drilling occurs on public lands!

When drilling occurs, public lands are often closed for other uses, such as hunting or hiking. Those polled call for a balanced approach to any energy development occurring in these areas, with 56 percent saying that environmentally sensitive public lands should be permanently protected from such activity.

Westerners do not reject completely an “all of the above” approach to energy, but they do have clear preferences that rank renewable energy high:

Preference for energy resources

2013 data

2012 data

Energy resource



Solar power



Wind power



Natural gas



Energy efficiency efforts






Nuclear Energy




It is imperative that conservation and further protection of the nation’s great vistas and valleys be a priority in the President’s second term. In this fiscal environment, where federal programs and employees are likely to be trimmed in upcoming months, Westerners are clear on the direction they would like public policy makers to take.

Survey respondents are even more worried this year than last year about cuts to funding for state parks, and protection of our natural areas and water quality. In 2013, 41 percent of participants indicated they are "extremely or very seriously" concerned, up from 36 percent in 2012. More than half – 59 percent – of those polled said they regularly hike, while 52 percent regularly camp.

While the Obama administration has made inroads into laying a foundation for improved environmental conservation and protection, such as establishing four new national monuments, eliminating hard-rock mining around Grand Canyon National Park and linking urban areas with natural areas, there's disappointment that the administration hasn’t designated more national monuments, increased National Park Service funding and pushed for more hiking and biking trails.

Recent history has shown that Democratic presidents make more environmental headway than Republican administrations.

Whether President Obama will be able to join those ranks and answer the call of Westerners to further preserve the nation's landscape remains to be seen. What comes through loud and clear from the survey results is the resoundingly strong support Westerners hold for conservation values that they believe can be balanced with other land uses.

Walter E. Hecox Ph.D., is faculty director, for Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, and Debbie Kelley, is a project writer of the State of the Rockies Project at the Colorado College.

The full 2013 Conservation in the West Survey results, as well as those from the 2012 and 2011 surveys, are available online.

About the Conservation in the West Public Opinion Survey

Colorado College and the State of Rockies Project are pleased to make available the results of the third annual poll of voter opinions on key aspects of the environment and the economy in six Western States.

The Poll was carefully constructed to be representative of the region.

To avoid partisanship, the “Conservation in the West” study was conducted by two research firms: Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, which counts among its clients Republican public policy agencies; and Public Opinion Strategies, which conducts studies for Fortune 500 companies, trade associations and Democratic agencies, among others.

The poll was conducted in late January by phoning a statistically selected sample of 2,400 registered voters in the six states on both land-lines and cell phones with bi-lingual response options.

"I would call it a slippery slope to the point where we're no longer honoring the commitment to the philosophy that the polluter pays. If we're not getting what we should be getting to clean up these wells, then we need to ensure that we do. Otherwise our laws mean nothing."

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