by Chase Woodruff, Colorado Newsline
Amid economic turmoil and a worsening water crisis, there’s no sign that people in Colorado and other Western states are backing off their long-held support for the conservation of public lands, a new poll shows.
More than 80% of voters across eight Western states support the “30×30” goal backed by environmental groups to enact protections for at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, according to an annual Colorado College survey. That’s up from 73% in 2020.
The college’s State of the Rockies project has conducted its Conservation in the West poll every year since 2011, measuring Western voters’ views across a range of environmental and energy issues. Over the last 12 years, it’s allowed researchers to track a steady uptick in unease among voters about issues like drought and climate change.
“It was only about one-quarter of voters in 2011 saying that (climate change) was an extremely or very serious problem. It’s half today,” Lori Weigel, the principal of polling firm New Bridge Strategy, told reporters Wednesday.
The latest poll, which surveyed more than 1,700 respondents in January, found that nearly 90% of Western voters say that “inadequate water supplies” are a serious problem, up from 75% in 2011.
Fueled by climate change, drought conditions that have persisted across the Colorado River Basin since 2000 have made for the region’s worst dry spell in at least 1,200 years. With critical shortfalls at reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, federal officials ordered emergency cuts to water use in the basin last year and the potential for further reductions looms in the near future.
Four-fifths of Westerners say the Colorado River is “in need of urgent action” to protect water supplies, with concerns greatest in “lower basin” states like Arizona and Nevada, the poll found.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of respondents told pollsters that they consider themselves “conservationists,” and overwhelming majorities in each state expressed support for the creation of new national parks, national monuments and other protected areas.
Gas prices may go up, but (respondents) still believe that we should be moving toward more use of clean and renewable energy, as opposed to drilling for more fossil fuels, because they know that over the long run that’s where they think we have to go.
– Dave Metz, of FM3 Research
President Joe Biden issued an executive order endorsing the ambitious 30×30 target shortly after taking office in 2021, but very little progress toward the goal has been made amid opposition from congressional Republicans and interest groups.
A 2021 Newsline analysis found that just over 10% of Colorado’s 66 million acres of land are currently protected, meaning new protections would need to be established across more than 13 million additional acres within the state by 2030. But only comparatively tiny additions like Biden’s designation of the 53,000-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument last year have been made under his administration. Other modestly sized public lands packages, like the Colorado Wilderness Act, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act and similar legislation in other states, have been stonewalled by Republicans in Congress.
The Conservation in the West poll found strong support for the 30×30 conservation plan across all eight states and all political persuasions. Even among self-identified conservative Republicans, nearly 70% of respondents indicated their support.
“Obviously, public opinion is one input into how elected officials form their decisions, and the lobbying of interest groups is another,” said Dave Metz, a partner at polling firm FM3 Research, said of the results Wednesday. “Certainly some of these questions are ones where matters of policy affect very well-funded industries that may have different perspectives than what the voters do.”
Warped perceptions of water use
Amid the West’s water woes, a growing number of residents say they’re worried about overcrowding. Three-quarters of poll respondents called the number of people moving into their state from elsewhere a serious problem, a 28-point increase since 2016.
Other results, however, suggested those concerns might be the product of distorted perceptions about Western water use. Nearly 4 in 10 respondents said they believed industry and businesses used the most water in their state, while another 25% said residential use accounted for the biggest share.
In fact, farms and ranches account for by far the biggest share — an estimated 80% or more — of water used in the Colorado River system. Only 34% of poll respondents correctly identified farmers and ranchers as the biggest category of users.
“For most members of the public, their perceptions of water use are based on what they see around them,” Metz said. “I think it does highlight an area where there’s room for public education, given how critical public concern is about water shortages.”
Despite widespread reported concerns about inflation and increased energy costs, the latest poll found durable majorities in support of clean energy investments and restrictions on fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
Three-quarters of Coloradans agreed that “the impact of oil and gas drilling on our land, air and water” is a serious problem. That’s the highest proportion out of any state in the survey, but even in deep-red states like Utah and Wyoming, a majority of voters shared that view. Other states covered in the poll were New Mexico, Idaho and Montana.
Metz said the poll’s most recent results are consistent with previous findings that show that a large majority of voters don’t believe that there’s necessarily a tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection.
“We’ve been doing work for 25 years on these subjects around the country, and that’s covered a lot of recessions, a lot of spikes in energy prices, a lot of changes in political administration,” he said. “The public’s perceptions on a lot of issues relating to land, water, wildlife and energy is based on what they see happening around them.
“Gas prices may go up, but they still believe that we should be moving toward more use of clean and renewable energy, as opposed to drilling for more fossil fuels, because they know that over the long run that’s where they think we have to go,” Metz added. “And that’s kind of encouraging — to think that the public has some real core values that they hold fast to, despite some of these changing temporary circumstances relating to politics and the economy.”
This story was written by Chase Woodruff, a reporter for Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.
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