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Western Voters Prioritize Access and Outdoor Recreation, but Oil and Gas Industry Influence Prevails

The results of the newly released 2015 Colorado College Conservation in the West poll shed light on a notable disconnect between voter opinion in the West and the influence on politics and policymaking that certain industries maintain in Washington, D.C.

At issue is voters’ priorities for management of their public lands. When asked to reflect on their priorities for public land management, Western voters prioritize protecting natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations over ensuring access for oil and gas, as can be seen in the chart below:

Question:  “I’m going to mention a few priorities that some people have for national parks, forests, national monuments, wildlife refuges, and other national public lands. Please tell me how important each one is to you personally.”


% Very Important

Protecting and conserving natural areas for future generations


Ensuring access for recreational activities


Making sure that resources such as oil and gas, minerals or coal are available for development and mining



While western voters are generally supportive of oil and gas development, it’s clearly a step down on their list of priorities.

It’s also worth noting that the U.S. outdoor recreation economy accounts for more direct jobs than oil and gas, mining, and timber combined. According to studies commissioned by the industries themselves, the outdoor recreation industry supports 6.1 million direct jobs, while oil and gas, mining, and timber support 2.6 million, 634,000, and 887,100 direct jobs respectively.

But, despite its popularity with voters and value as an economic powerhouse, outdoor recreation and its advocates are largely underrepresented in policy-making and in political calculations on the national level.

The outdoor recreation industry—which includes hiking, biking, camping, hunting, fishing, skiing, and motorcycling—is being significantly outspent by the oil and gas industry in Washington, D.C., especially when it comes to lobbying. In 2014, the American Petroleum Institute, the national trade association for the oil and gas industry, spent over $9 million in lobbying expenditures. By comparison, the leading trade association for the outdoor recreation industry, the Outdoor Industry Association, spent only $360,000.

As The Guardian put it in a story on the issue earlier this month:

In the political arena, those businesses that depend upon nature are decided underdogs when they battle adversaries, such as the fossil fuel industry, which would like to see more exploration for oil and gas on federal lands.

This massive spending differential has ensured the prevailing influence of oil and gas interests in national land use policy conversations. This can be seen, for example, in the litany of energy bills that members of Congress have introduced and attempted to move this year, such as the Federal Lands Freedom Act, which calls for state control over energy development on federal lands.

In the end, the Conservation in the West poll tells us what lobbying numbers miss: that conservation and the outdoor recreation economy are cornerstones of the Western economy and way of life—and that smart politicians and policymakers will take the recreation economy into account.

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