Takeaways from Colorado College’s 2023 Conservation in the West Poll
Even when faced with inflation and high gas prices, Western voters continue to prioritize conservation of our lands, waters, and wildlife, according to the 2023 Conservation in the West Poll. In the 13 years since the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project launched the annual poll, the majority of Western voters have consistently supported public lands protection, wildlife preservation, renewable energy, and water conservation. Throughout the years, this sentiment has only grown stronger.
In the eight states polled (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), voters expressed concern in the 60 to 90 percent range for problems like high gas prices and overcrowding, while over 90 percent of voters expressed concern over protecting wildlife habitats and migration routes, ensuring healthier forests, providing opportunities for children to explore and learn about nature, and safeguarding drinking water.
In a recent episode of the Center for Western Priorities’ podcast, The Landscape, pollsters Lori Weigel and Dave Metz describe these findings.
“What we’ve seen is that there’s a great deal of consistency in terms of the conservation ethic of voters in the West despite rising cost of living, despite concerns about gas prices, despite renewed pressure in some states from many folks moving into those states,” Weigel said. “We continue to see that over the course of the last 13 years, the one thing that people have really valued and held dear is the land, the water, and wildlife in their state and their ability to get outdoors.”
Concerns over high gas prices did not interfere with voters’ prioritization of the health of our public lands over oil and gas extraction. 91 percent of voters prefer oil and gas companies to use updated equipment and technology to prevent gas leaks, and the same portion of voters prefer that oil companies — rather than taxpayers — pay for all the clean-up and land restoration costs after drilling is finished. Unsurprisingly, voters were far more likely to prioritize protecting clean water, air quality, and wildlife habitats than maximizing the amount of national public lands available for oil and gas drilling and mining.
“This year voters in the West have a lot on their minds, but they are not willing to trade one priority for another,” said Katrina Miller-Stevens, Director of the State of the Rockies Project and an associate professor at Colorado College. “High gas prices, increasing costs of living, and water shortage concerns are not enough to move Westerners to reconsider their consistent support for conservation policies or seek out short-sighted solutions that put land and water at risk. In fact, people in the West want to continue our progress to protect more outdoor spaces.”
Water was of particular importance in this year’s poll as many Westerners grapple with threats presented by dangerously low water levels in the Colorado River Basin. Voters in states that rely on the river believe it is critical to their state’s economy, with 81 percent of voters saying the river is at risk and in need of urgent action. This popular sentiment reflects a spike in concern over water shortages since the start of the poll — in 2011, about 75 percent of voters rated water supplies as a serious problem. Now, nearly 9 in 10 voters say the same.
Since its inception in 2020, voters have overwhelmingly supported the national goal to conserve 30 percent of American lands and waters by 2030, and support has never been higher than it is now. 82 percent of voters would like to see the 30×30 goal adopted by their state, including support from two-thirds of conservative GOP voters. Executive action is widely acknowledged as integral for conservation, as voters support presidents continuing to use their ability to designate existing public lands as national monuments to maintain public access and protect land and wildlife.
“On most issues, now, Democrats and Republicans are unfortunately very polarized. And on conservation, that is much less true,” said Dave Metz on The Landscape. “When it comes to land, water, and wildlife, it really is one of the few areas in our political life where we do see this kind of broad bipartisan consensus.”
For the third year, the poll included an oversample of Black and Native American voters to more accurately examine the interaction of race and views on conservation. Results for Black, Latino, and Native American voters were separated to more confidently reflect the views of each community on conservation issues and combined to accurately depict attitudes toward conservation issues for communities of color as a whole.
Though conservation initiatives were supported by all groups, Native American voters continue to express particularly strong support for protecting wildlife and recreational opportunities. About 70 percent of Native Americans identified as conservationists, and they showed the most support for providing opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Across the board, voters recognized the voices of Tribal nations as being particularly important in conversations around land protection, with a strong majority saying Native American Tribes should have greater input into decisions made about areas on national public lands that contain sites sacred or culturally important to their Tribe. Additionally, Native American voters diagnosed the population declines of fish and wildlife as a problem by 12 points higher than the average for white, Latino, and Black respondents, and identified the loss of natural areas and wildlife as a problem by 11 points higher.
This year’s poll also showed an increase in support among Black voters for a variety of conservation policies. A whopping 88 percent support the 30×30 initiative, 6 points higher than the average of all voters of color. Black voters are also more likely to support directing funding to ensure adequate access to parks and natural areas for lower-income people and communities of color that have disproportionately lacked them, as well as conserving natural areas that connect lower income or communities of color to the outdoors. There was strong support from all groups to protect land, air, and water, but Black voters were especially supportive of policies that targeted oil and gas companies’ impacts on these essential qualities of our environment. They identified the impact of oil and gas drilling on our land, air, and water as more important, and showed more support than any other group for requiring oil and gas companies to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas and other air pollution.
For the first time, the State of the Rockies Poll was able to conduct enough interviews to obtain substantive information on Gen Z voters. Compared to older generations, Gen Z voters are more likely to identify as conservationists; prioritize clean water, air, and wildlife over oil and gas development; and support Antiquities Act designations. Almost unanimously, Gen Z voters believe low levels of water in rivers is a serious problem, and they supported every policy action measured to address inadequate water supplies. Overall, the results for Gen Z voters across the West show widespread and strong support for conservation measures.
Yet again, the Conservation in the West Poll has shown that despite other concerns facing voters, conservation of our public lands to ensure safe access to land, clean air and water, and protections for wildlife are front-seat issues that have only grown more important to Westerners over the past 13 years. As Wiegel put it, “When we ask people about what they like most, it is overwhelmingly about the land, the view, the wildlife that walk across their property, so much about nature. I think it’s more integral to their identity than the price of eggs.”