Transcript: What Western voters want in 2024

Feb 28, 2024

This is an automatically generated transcript. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors. 

Aaron: Welcome to the Landscape, your show about America’s parks and public lands. I’m Aaron Weiss at the Center for Western Priorities in Denver, Colorado.

Kate: And I’m Kate Groetzinger in Salt Lake City. Today on the podcast, we’re talking to the pollsters behind Colorado College’s 14th annual State of the Rockies Conservation. In the West Poll, the poll asks voters from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. I think I got all of those, how they feel about Western issues like conservation each year. And this year’s results show that voters are more united than ever when it comes to preserving public lands. But before we get to that, let’s do the news.

Aaron: So we did just put out an episode last week, but there is one bit of big news since then. The Wyoming State Legislature looks like it’s gonna offer a lifeline for the Kelly parcel. That is that one square mile section of land inside Grand Teton National Park. That was at risk of getting sold out to developers. So you’d end up with trophy homes in the middle of the National Park. Now, both the State House and the state Senate have passed bills that would put a $100 million price tag on the sale of that parcel to the National Park Service. That is significantly more than the $62 million that the parcel was last appraised at. But it’s not a deal breaking price like the $750 million proposal that some legislators proposed to kill that sale entirely. Now, this is not a done deal yet lawmakers attached strings to each chamber’s bill that would have to be resolved before final passage.

Both the House and the Senate tacked on amendments that would allow hunting and grazing on the parcel, which is something that’s generally not allowed in national parks, but there are certainly some exceptions. I don’t see that as being something that could derail this. Now, the House also attached an amendment tying the sale of the Kelly parcel to the Bureau of Land Management’s draft plan for its Rock Springs Field Office, an entirely different federal agency in an entirely different part of the state. So that amendment would basically put Wyoming’s governor in the driver’s seat, letting him block the sale if the governor decides that M’s proposed management plan is finally adopted, and it restricts too much grazing or oil and gas development in that Rock Springs Field office. We talked about that plan, , several months back about why the debate over it has been filled with disinformation in Wyoming. Not clear what’s gonna come of all of that. The House and Senate still have to work out those differences. , this is overall, however, a big victory and a big step in the right direction, hopefully resolving once and for all, , the future of this, one square mile parcel inside Grand Teton.

Aaron: Today we are talking about the 14th annual Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll. It’s always a good mouthful. , joining us, , once again this year, Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy and Dave Metz with Fairbank Maslin, Mullin Metz and Associates. They are the bipartisan polling team that conducts this poll on behalf of Colorado College every year. And it occurs to me, Lori and Dave, , you’ve been doing this poll for 14 years. We’ve been doing this podcast for, what, five or six and I think we’ve had you on just about every year, which makes you the most repeat podcast guests in The Landscape history. So congratulations for that and welcome back to the podcast.

Dave: Is this like Saturday Night Live? Do we get a five timer’s jacket that we can wear now?

Aaron: Definitely. I mean, we will find a little statue or something. Without a doubt. Our shwag is not as good as SNL’s. Alright, Lori, let’s start with you. What’s, what’s the upshot? What struck you the most from the poll this year?

Lori: Well, I think that a lot has changed over the 14 year period, right? We have a whole new generation of voters that didn’t weren’t able to vote  in in our first years of falling. So Gen Z wasn’t around, there’s lots of newcomers into this region, and yet the consistent thing has been really this shared love for the outdoors, for wildlife, for nature. We are seeing that whenever we offered up a choice, whether it was about wildlife migration roots, whether it was about national public lands, whatever it was, , when we offered up a choice between sort of a conservation being the priority or development being a priority, even if that was responsible energy development, that overwhelmingly westerners chose the idea of placing an emphasis on conservation.

Kate: So Dave, you come at this question of conservation support for conservation from two angles, sort of, there’s, there’s the positive support, like we want to see this. And then there’s also asking about concerns. What did Westerners say they were worried about this year?

Dave: Pretty much everything, and I mean as pollsters, I think, we see this as sort of an age of anxiety we’re facing right now. If you look at the, both the national polling and the Western polling, when you ask people if they think things in their community are headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track or in the country as a whole or overwhelmingly people feel like things are on the wrong track, there’s lots of things driving that. There’s the cost of living, there’s concerns about housing, but there’s also concerns about the environment. And the poll makes clear we’ve got really high numbers that are telling us they see challenges facing the natural setting of the west in which they live. We’ve got solid majorities who view it as a very serious problem that we’re losing fish and wildlife habitat, that there is both air and water pollution, both generally and then in the form of some specific threats like microplastics, which is something that we are newly polling here, and we see 58% of Westerners view that as a very serious problem. And then climate change as well. And all of the different ways that’s impacting Western landscapes majority views that as a very serious problem too. So there’s broad public recognition that there’s just a lot of different factors that are posing threats or challenges to the land that they love so much. And I think that’s what drives support for a lot of the different policy initiatives we tested in the poll that are designed to respond to exactly those challenges.

Aaron: Lori, one of the advantages of Colorado College doing this poll for so many years now is that really lets you find trends and look at how public opinion is changing over time. So has support for conservation broadly grown and, and to Dave’s point about concerns, how have those concerns changed over the 14 years that you’ve been doing this poll?

Lori: Yeah, so we have seen increasing concern. We’ve added some states into the mix over that time, but when we look at the core five states that we started with and how people in those states are responding today, we’ve seen the highest levels of concern that we’ve ever recorded for things like climate change, for things like loss of habitat, for fish and wildlife, water quality. There’s just a whole slew of different aspects of the natural world that voters are now telling us, wow, this is, this is getting worse, this is not getting better, and this is a serious problem we need to address. And in doing that, while we’ve always seen a lot of support for a number of policies, we’ve tried to incorporate some trade off questions. So I kind of alluded to one of those earlier, but like thinking about national public lands, we ask people to say, “Hey, where do you want your member of Congress to place more emphasis on in upcoming decisions regarding national public lands? Is it basically about conservation and recreation and all of that on national public lands? Or should we be placing more emphasis on producing more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of those public lands that are available for responsible oil and gas drilling?” And we had the largest margin that we’ve ever had. It’s always been significant, but it’s overwhelming now. We have seven in 10 westerners saying “no, place the emphasis on protecting those places.” And in fact, for the first time we had an outright majority of Republicans feeling that way as well. We’ve always seen our independent voters and Democrats overwhelmingly siding with the idea of conservation. But for the first time, we really have a majority across the partisan spectrum saying, “yeah, my member of congress needs to know that this is where I want the emphasis placed.”

Kate: Lori, so you guys asked the same questions year after year to see how people’s opinions are staying the same or changing, but you also add in new questions to get at people’s support for conservation from different angles. What were some of those new questions you added this year?

Lori: Yeah, so we asked a number of new questions, and over time we’ve tended to focus on just how do people feel and quantifying numbers. But we asked some open-ended questions where people could say whatever they want, and then we looked at those responses and classified them ourselves. We’ve heard a lot over the years about people telling us they’re visiting national public lands, they’re engaging in outdoor recreations, sort of living up to the stereotype of the Rocky Mountain States and Western lifestyles. But we asked them to tell us, “Hey, is there someplace in nature in the United States could be a national park, national forest, some other type of area that you visited that you would say you loved, right?” And we got such a plethora of responses. It was amazing. I mean, and it was everything from, like, I remember one person in Idaho saying, “I’d love to walk my dog on the Boise Green Belt” to National Forest lands to, predictably the big national parks, the sort of iconic places, really dominated Yellowstone, blew everybody else out of the water .

We asked the flip side of that too, like, is there someplace you’d really like to visit someday, sort of on your bucket list for travel? And again, big national parks really dominated, but much further afield, everywhere from the Everglades to Acadia to Denali to all over the country. And some people just talking about types of landscapes that they wanted to see: the redwoods in California or the Smoky Mountains. So just a huge range of those places. And I think, and some people gave us even more, they didn’t just name a place, they talked about what they did there or what it meant for their family. And so I do think that connection to kids, and while we’ve asked it in the past, we’ve repeated a question asking about children not spending enough time in the outdoors, that was at the highest level of concern that we’ve ever seen.

And so we asked a question specifically about children and young people telling people, “Hey, the rates of anxiety, depression, and mental health problems in kids have risen dramatically in the last few years. And do you think that spending more time outdoors in nature would either help a lot, help some, or really not have much effect? You know, tell us about that.” We had two thirds telling us they thought it would help a lot, and virtually everyone, 93%, saying it would at least help somewhat. So it kind of picks up on the value people place in the outdoors. It’s not just like physical exercise, it’s that mental release that I think as people have become much more acutely aware of the value of nature in that aspect over the last several years since, since the pandemic, and it really shows up in this year’s data.

Aaron: Dave, I wanna change gears and ask about energy, especially renewables versus oil and gas. As we’re seeing more and more renewable energy projects, especially on public lands in the West, we’re seeing what some people might describe as NIMBY opposition to renewables projects. Is any of that showing up in the polling or how are voters feeling about renewables and fossil fuels these days?

Dave: What we see in this year’s poll, as we’ve seen often in the past, is voters believe that we need to make a transition in the West from relying primarily on fossil fuels to expanding our use of renewable energy. And there’s a range of different policy proposals being tested in the poll that address this desire to make change. For example, we have almost two thirds of Western voters, 66%, telling us they believe that oil and gas drilling should be limited to areas that have a high probability of actually producing meaningful amounts of oil and gas, and that oil and gas companies should be required to pay for the cleanup and restoration of areas where they have drilled. 90% support that very strongly across partisan lines. So there’s a continued sense that we ought to be limiting, constraining and sort of putting higher standards of accountability on the fossil fuel development that we continue to do in the West.

But moving forward, we see a clear preference for making a shift to renewable energy. And in this year’s poll, one of the things we wanted to explore was whether there’s a tension in their minds between protecting the natural landscapes that they so clearly love, and then developing renewable energy at the kind of scale we need to really replace our reliance on fossil fuels, which can mean significant wind and solar and other kinds of development that might take place on Western lands, and what we heard in the survey was basically overwhelming confidence from voters that we can figure out a path forward that allows us to preserve both those Western values. 75% of voters told us they believe we can both increase the production of clean energy while also preserving natural areas, wildlife habitat, and the character of our communities. Only one in five Western voters believes that those goals are in conflict and that we can only satisfy one or the other. So the process of working that out and sort of figuring out on a community by community and project by project basis, how we strike that balance is something that I’m sure Western communities will continue to grapple with, but voters wanna see us move in that direction and believe there’s a path forward that can preserve what they love about the West, while also moving us to cleaner sources of energy.

Kate: Awesome. Folks who listen to the landscape may remember our last episode was about solar planning, so go listen to that if you wanna hear more about balancing renewables in conservation. Lori, I wanna ask you about probably my favorite result from the poll this year, because I live in Utah. You found that over 80% of voters in both Utah and Colorado support the goal to protect 30% of US lands and waters by 2030, also known as 30 by 30. And that was the most out of any Western states that really surprised me because all we really hear out of Utah is just anti-conservation messaging. So I’m curious why you think Utah voters are so supportive of this goal to protect more land and water. And have you asked this by state in the past? Is this a change?

Lori:  Yes, we have asked it in the past, and overall it has been pretty consistent in terms of respondents saying, “yes, we need to engage in conservation.” Although Utah has certainly had several years in there where there was big fights about national monuments and some other conservation priorities. And that played into making that a more divisive issue for a while. Then I think it is today, now that we’re past some of those issues, I think part of the impetus for wanting conservation is that many of these states are feeling sort of a crush of people moving into their states. So, and in fact, we asked people this year to tell us whether too many people moving into their state was a serious problem. And Utah wasn’t the absolute highest, that goes to Colorado, where 54% said it was an extremely or very serious problem, and it was shared in a number of states. You know, we definitely saw Nevada and Idaho and a few other places concerned too, but Utah was definitely in that top tier. So I think some of it is just we’ve seen in past years that this concern about “I go to this hiking trail and now it’s completely packed,” or just that crush of people moving into these areas definitely impacts this idea that, yeah, we need to engage in conservation. There’s more areas that could be conserved and could be conserved.

Aaron: David, I wanna ask about climate change. About two thirds of Western voters said that climate change is a serious problem in their state. You do a lot of polling, not just in these mountain West states, but also California and across the country. Is that a consistent number you’re seeing across other polls as well in terms of climate change concerns?

Dave: It is. And one of the things that Lori and I have really seen change over the decade and a half we’ve been doing the poll is that concern about climate change has steadily, slowly, but steadily grown over that period of time. We went from a period in the mid-2000s shortly after the release of an Inconvenient Truth and, and Al Gore’s advocacy on the issue, where the numbers sort of went down. And the main reason for that was increasing partisan polarization. Democrats sort of held addressing climate change as one of their central priorities, whereas Republicans increasingly dismissed it. But over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen those numbers rebounding, and the reason is obviously because the impacts of climate change are harder and harder to deny. They’re making themselves felt across the west most prominently and in more frequent and severe wildfires, but also in periods of drought, increasing struggles with invasive species, and severe storms that are happening more often as well.  And as the public is expressing more concern about these impacts, there’s also more recognition that whatever your belief about the causes of climate change, that a changing climate is having these impacts. And at the very least, we need to be prepared to do more to address it. So I think in this poll, like in many others we’re doing, you’re seeing that sort of growing recognition among the public leading to higher levels of concern about climate change. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve gotten to a consensus yet about what policies we should put in place to address it, but there does seem to be a growing and increasingly shared recognition of the nature of the problem.

Lori: Yeah, and I’ll just jump in. In fact, I think compared to 2011, the first year we did the poll, the proportion that are saying that climate change is a serious problem has gone up 20 points. It’s one of the highest increases of any issue that we’ve looked at. So it is really dramatic, and we now have two thirds saying that compared to 10 years ago, the effects of climate change in their state have been very or somewhat significant. So we’re really seeing acute concerns about this issue in a way that we didn’t when we started the survey.

Kate: So, Lori, following on that, we’ve talked about how large majorities of Western voters say they support conservation, say they believe in climate change, want to want to address it. Are you seeing Republicans and Democrats or red and blue folks come together on these issues? Is there sort of less divisiveness?

Lori: Well, everything’s divisive these days, but I’d say some of these issues are less divisive than others. And what’s striking is that even when we’re placing it in the context of responsible energy development as a trade off or whatever it is, we tend to see majorities across the partisan spectrum saying, “no, I wanna place wildlife first. I wanna place conserving these beautiful areas of my state that I love first and foremost over some of those development issues.” So we’re not arm in arm walking down the street right now, but on many issues, I’d say particularly water is one of them, we have much more in common than one might think if you were looking at the debate in Washington or what policy makers are talking about.

Aaron: Question for both of you, how does your work on the Colorado College poll inform the work that we don’t see that either of you do for candidates or elected officials across the west looking for guidance on how to approach issues?

Dave: I mean, I would say I think this is one of the most impactful research projects that either of us work on in terms of the way it informs how policy makers think. Because the poll has been around for 15 years, so it’s become kind of an institution. We will have people who will reach out to us in December or November and say, “Hey, when, when’s the next State of the Rockies poll coming out? I was really hoping to get some updated numbers.” And also because just the scope of the poll is so large, we’re talking to at least 400 voters in each of these eight states, which means we have just an incredibly rich dataset, regionwide, but also the ability to talk with specificity about what’s going on in each state. It’s a valuable tool for policymakers. And so not only do Lori and I often have meetings and briefings where we’ll go to Washington, and we’re, we’re a bipartisan team. My firm polls for Democrats. I’ll go talk to democratic elected officials. Lori works for Republicans, so she’ll be on the GOP side of the aisle. We’ll sit down and we’ll do briefings and walk ’em through the data. And it is always the level of interest that policymakers and their staff have and the ways that they can think, “well, hey, it’s great to have this number because there’s this bill coming up for a hearing next week, and it would be really good to be able to mention how the public feels about this.” We can really see tangibly how the data is affecting the policymaking process. In fact, I think even just since the poll came out last week, there was a Montana state legislator who emailed with some thoughts about the poll and you know had clearly read it and had some reactions. So, that doesn’t always happen in our line of work, and it’s kind of gratifying to see how seriously and how thoughtfully policymakers look at this data and consider it as part of their discussions of these issues.

Lori: Yeah, and I think that what’s striking to me is walking into a congressional office, it’s usually not a picture of a city that’s on their wall, unless they’re a very urban legislator, it’s like that grand landscape photography or wildlife or it is something about nature. And so I do think that what this poll underscores there’s plenty of hunters and anglers, there’s plenty of people out there camping, lots of them are Republican, right? And, so I do think that in some of the tone and tenor of the conversations, it’s not that anyone is ever saying, “I don’t like nature, I don’t like wildlife, and therefore I want this policy.” Right? More often, they are saying “I do like those things and that’s why I want X and I want more people to have access or whatever it is.” So even if it may not be a policy that I would prefer personally, it is usually from that shared space. And so I think that this survey has provided that perspective, and I see it impacting how folks on my side of the aisle are talking about these issues in a way that I don’t think was there in the early two thousands.

Aaron: So then Dave, how soft or solid are these numbers, do you think? Do they reflect overall attitudes toward conservation? And do we see this show up in terms of policy outcomes at the ballot box when there’s conservation on the ballot?

Dave: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s sort of two answers to that question, and this is something we get asked a lot, which is the poll shows that there is really just this broad and bipartisan consensus around the value of conservation in the West, that the public just wants to see these resources conserved, and yet a lot of times the outcomes of policy debates don’t necessarily reflect that. And I think the nature of politics is when elected officials are making decisions at the federal or state or local level, public opinion is one factor they consider. But there’s also the interest group politics involved. And a lot of times the people who have those direct economic stakes in these issues are the ones who are most vocal, most present, letting policymakers know what they think. And that can shape policies in ways that sometimes aren’t totally consistent with what the public is saying they want. But conversely, when the public has a chance to vote directly on whether they want conservation and often whether they wanna tax themselves to pay for it, in other words, not just say, “Hey, I like conservation, but go ahead, take some more money outta my wallet because this matters enough to me that I’m willing to pay for it.” When you look at state and local ballot measures across the West that provide funding for conservation, 75, 80% of them, almost every election cycle are approved by voters. And I think that’s important validation that voters are willing to put their money where their values are as expressed in this polling. And the poll itself I think is an important tool to give the public a voice in that policymaking process, where if I’m a, if I’m a lobbying group, I’ve got entree, I’ve got ways that I can get the ear of a state legislator or a member of Congress. The public doesn’t have the time inclination or know how to make themselves heard that way, but this poll bridges that gap and basically says, “Hey, here’s what your constituents think on these issues.” And, and I think as a result it is a really valuable additional input to help policy makers sort of balance the competing interests that they have to think about when they make these decisions.

Kate: So, Dave, that sort of leads to the question of why don’t we see policymakers always espousing policy, putting forth policies that reflect these opinions?

Dave: Yeah, and I mean, I think it’s fair to say that number one, that interest group process that I talked about before, there can be a lot of money on the side of not conserving lands of promoting more use of extractive industries, for example, and that’s a pretty powerful counterweight in a lot of these legislative debates. It’s also the case that, I mean, just to be fair, I said at the top of the podcast, Americans are worried about everything. They’re worried about the environment, but they’re also worried about healthcare. They’re also worried about housing, they’re also worried about transportation and foreign policy and a whole litany of other issues, many of which get more attention on a day-to-day basis in the media, and so for all those reasons policymakers may not be as attentive to whether they’re aligning their votes with where the public stands on on some of these issues. But I will say the West is one place where more than perhaps other regions of the country, these issues really do matter. You look at some of the most competitive political races that we’ve had in these western states over the course of the last couple of years, whether it’s some of the close races in Montana or Colorado, and often you’ll see advertisements from candidates that are focusing on the role of public lands or the role of renewable energy, and whatever side of the aisle those candidates are on, they’re generally speaking out in favor of conservation and in favor of clean energy because they know that that’s where most voters in their states, even purple states and even some of the redder states are. So, conservation doesn’t win every policy debate, but there’s no question that we see lots of places where the strong sentiments that voters are expressing in this poll are being pretty carefully weighed by elected representatives.

Aaron: Last question for both of you. And this may or may not have anything to do with conservation. Polling, as we all know, is very expensive. You’re both, of course, beholden to clients, whether it’s candidates or universities who come in with the things they want to know about. But you must have times when you wake up at night and think, “wow, I really wish I knew something X, Y, and z,” or some other off the wall topic. If you could poll on anything, Taylor Swift and Beyonce, I don’t care. What, what would you, what would your dream poll question be? And I’ll start with Lori on that one.

Lori: Well, I’m laughing because we’re actually asking about Taylor Swift in an upcoming poll. So there you go. The influence of my 20-year-old daughter. Oh gosh, there’s so many things that are happening. I think there’s obviously massive technological change happening right now, and I do think that it’s just like this year in the survey we asked people about having an app on their phone related to nature and recreation, right? We didn’t ask that in 2011 for a reason. We were actually asking people, “have you ever been on social media?” And some stuff like that back in 2011. So there are just changes and developments happening that are intriguing and I think are gonna impact our lives in many, many ways, and so I think AI is one area I’d love to explore more in depth.

Dave: I’ll answer the question a little more selfishly. We often, as we’re getting to the late stages of campaigns and we’re doing big weekly polls, that are short polls, sometimes we’ll throw a question or two on there that we’re interested in. Just as you suggested in your question, Aaron. And as pollsters, one of the things that we’re always grappling with is how to get people to respond to surveys. Survey response rates have been going down over the course of recent years, and it’s something that we wanna change. And so in a recent poll a couple years ago, we put a question in the poll, “why did you agree to talk to us today?” And just let people tell us in their own words why. And the results were fascinating. Many of them were very, I think, refreshingly high-minded.

They kind of restored your faith in democracy. People saying the public should have a voice on, on key political issues. It’s important that we all speak out and talk about what we believe. But then there were other ones that just made me hold my head a little bit, like, “Well, I answered the phone ’cause I thought you were my food delivery guy. You have a really nice voice, and so I decided I’d have a conversation with you.” So there’s all kinds of motivations that can lead people to participate, I guess. But thankfully they do. Our livelihood depends on it. And obviously the ability to let policy makers know about what they think about conservation in the west also depends on it. So for all the Westerners listening, please keep answering those polls.

Kate: That reminds me of when I got a call for a poll, and I only did it because I thought about this poll and the polling we do, and I figured it would be hypocritical for me not to.

I guess we’ll leave it there. Lori Weigel with Newbridge Strategy and Dave Metz with FM three, thank you both for being here and for all your good work on this poll.

Lori: It’s our pleasure.

Dave: Our pleasure.

Kate: Here’s a little good news to close us out today. Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, AKA FERC, took a historic step by halting several controversial hydroelectric projects on the Navajo Nation, citing the fact that the Navajo Nation formally objected to each of the projects. FERC even went so far as to announce that through these orders, it was establishing a new policy that the commission will not issue preliminary permits for projects proposing to use tribal lands. If the tribe on whose lands the project is to be located opposes the permit, AKA, they’re actually going to respect tribal sovereignty for the first time. That’s a huge deal. And we may or may not have an episode on it soon.

Aaron: Well if we wait till June or July, we could declare it to be another hot FERC summer

Kate: Okay.

Aaron: Okay, sorry. I will see myself out with that. Folks, send us a message if you like this episode, or if you just want to object to the puns, we always love hearing from you podcast@westernpriorities.org, go give us a follow on TikTok if you haven’t already. Our colleague Sterling is doing some very fun stuff on there.

Kate: Thanks again to Lori and Dave for their time today. And thank you for listening to the Landscape.