Memo: Western Voter Views on Public Lands and Outdoor Issues

Jan 8, 2020

To: Reporters and Interested Parties
From: Aaron Weiss, Deputy Director, Center for Western Priorities
Re: Western Voter Views on Public Lands and Outdoor Issues

For candidates campaigning in the Mountain West, appreciating the role of public lands in the region is critical to connecting with the moveable voters who decide elections. The memo below provides background on the views of Western voters on key public lands and outdoor issues and their growing importance at the ballot box. 

Public Lands: The Last Bipartisan Voting Issue 

The Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West poll—conducted last fall in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada—found Westerners remain passionate about the landscapes and lifestyles that make the Rocky Mountain West a special place to live.

Seventy-eight percent of voters consider issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife to be important when deciding whether to support a candidate for public office—coming in just behind issues like education, healthcare and the economy, and outpacing climate change as a top concern.

Public lands bring people together in the West at a time when most other issues of importance divide and polarize. Ninety-three percent of voters agree the mountains and outdoors are what makes living in their state special. 

The intensity of these views have only solidified over the past three election cycles we conducted the poll, particularly with a group of swing voters in the ideological middle who regularly participate in outdoor recreation—a growing “outdoor voting bloc.” 

Voter Priorities on Public Lands

Western voters are eager to see a proactive agenda to expand and protect national public lands. Super-majorities support proposals to ensure public lands are protected, funded, and used responsibly. 

  • 80 percent support reinvesting oil, gas, mining, and renewable energy royalties collected from public lands back into the public lands themselves
  • 81 percent support increasing spending on public lands to ensure necessary access and maintenance
  • 86 percent support investing in forest management to protect public lands, restore Western forests, and protect communities from wildfire
  • 70 percent support increasing funding to build new public trails, campgrounds, and access points on public lands
  • 78 percent support providing full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to ensure people have access to recreation on public lands, and that public land is purchased and protected for the benefit of the public 
  • 61 percent support the U.S. protecting new deserving lands as future parks or national monuments

Similarly strong majority support for the proposals outlined above was seen in a subset of dependable Primary Election voters. In addition, majority support for a conservationist agenda on public lands held true whether the poll respondents were Democrats, Republicans, or independent voters. 

Voters Reject the Current Administration’s Public Lands Agenda

By contrast, Western voters consistently say the current administration’s record on public lands is antithetical to the outdoor way of life here. The administration’s approval rating among Western voters on public lands issues sits at 32 percent, and recent administration proposals on public lands are unpopular.

  • 55 percent oppose opening up new public lands to oil and gas development 
  • 59 percent oppose rolling back environmental and safety regulations on oil and gas development
  • 59 percent oppose curbing regulations designed to reduce natural gas leaks from public lands development 
  • 69 percent oppose reducing the size of national monuments, specifically significantly shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments

Voter views on the administration’s public lands agenda are consistent across all five states surveyed and reflected in the responses of independent voters. 

Balance and Conservation Win in the West 

Voters in the West favor proposals to limit the impacts of energy development on public lands. Requiring mining companies to pay taxpayers royalties for mineral extraction on public lands; increasing royalties for oil, gas, and coal extraction; and insisting energy companies detect and repair leaks in drilling equipment are popular ideas with voters across the ideological spectrum. A majority say protecting our outdoor spaces should be given priority even at the risk of closing some land to future development, compared to just one in ten who take the opposite view. 

Western voters also seek balance. Fifty-three percent of voters in the West say oil and gas production should be allowed with strict limitations and regulations to ensure that land, wildlife, water, and public safety are protected first and foremost. More extreme positions are far less popular. Only 11 percent say oil and gas development should be expanded on public lands to help the U.S. become energy independent as soon as possible. On the other end of the ideological divide, 18 percent of voters agree oil and gas should be kept in the ground on public lands and companies should be prohibited from drilling on public lands.

How those positions are described is relevant to voter responses. When presented with two options, voters preferred to “limit” rather than “prohibit” oil and gas extraction on public lands by a margin of 67 percent to 48 percent.

The complete poll results can be viewed here