In its thirteenth year, the annual Conservation in the West Poll showed that, despite changes in the world over the years, people in the western United States stick to their beliefs when it comes to the outdoors.
“We've seen three presidents. We've seen new governors in virtually every single state. We've seen different changes in the economy," Lori Weigel, the principal at New Bridge Strategy who helped conduct the survey, said at a press conference held February 15. “But what we've seen that's remained incredibly consistent over this past thirteen years is that Westerners really do tend to prioritize conservation of land and water and wildlife, and, in many respects, their ability to enjoy the outdoors.”
Weigel noted that Coloradans in particular love the outdoors. In iterations of the survey since the pandemic, the pollsters added questions about increased recreation during the pandemic, and people in Colorado were “almost offended," saying they have always used public lands — it’s key to this state’s identity.
In Colorado specifically, 66 percent of respondents consider themselves conservationists.
The Conservation in the West Poll is housed under the State of the Rockies project at Colorado College, which works to enhance public understanding of the Rocky Mountain West and advance solutions to socio-environmental challenges in the region. Colorado has been part of the survey since its inception in 2011, when it was included along with New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Over the years, the survey has expanded to include Arizona, Idaho and Nevada, as well.
The nonpartisan group spends the beginning of the year interviewing voters from those states about a variety of conservation issues. It pays attention to Black, Latino, Native American and Gen Z voters, as well as the general population.
“Black and Indigenous voters in the West are not only passionate about the outdoors, but they care about protecting our environment, and about issues like climate change, pollution and the impact of oil and gas,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation. "One may ask, why do communities care so much? Because when we talk about conservation, we're talking about much more than protecting the land, waters and climate that surrounds us. Conservation is also having to do with our health, the economy, work and social justice.”
Communities of color are often disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards as a result of historic environmental racism, she continued.
“Nature is supposed to be a great equalizer,” Arce said. “In reality, however, American society distributes nature's benefits and the effects of its destruction and decline unequally by race, income and age.”
The poll showed that communities of color want a stronger voice when it comes to decisions about the climate. Still, their priorities align with those of most voters reached by the poll on the importance of public land, with 68 percent of respondents agreeing that conserving public land is more important than using it for drilling or mining.
“One question that we've asked consistently since 2019 is for voters to place themselves in the position of their member of Congress and say, ‘Where should more emphasis be placed in upcoming decisions regarding national public lands throughout the West, and then in their state?’” Weigel said. “We continue to see that voters in the West tell us that we need to basically place more emphasis on the conservation value and outdoor recreation value of national public lands rather than on energy production on those lands.”
Water was one of the biggest topics in 2023, with the survey finding urgency around protecting clean drinking water, with half the respondents saying the water shortage is a serious crisis. In Colorado, 92 percent of people said drought is a serious problem.
“The level of intensity of concern around water is really off the charts on a number of metrics,” said Dave Metz, principal and president of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, who also helped conduct the survey. “It is higher than it has been over the course of the State of the Rockies project. It also cuts across geographic areas in the West.”
Weigel pointed out that in the time period when the survey was being conducted, it was snowy or rainy in every state, unlike in previous years — yet people still said they were worried about water.
“We used to say, ‘Oh, people aren't concerned about water just because it was raining two days before we conducted interviews,’” she said. “That's not the case anymore.”
The Colorado River was a specific topic of concern in 2023, with Metz describing it as one of the major drivers of the sentiment around water in the Intermountain West. This year’s survey included specific questions about the Colorado River.
In Colorado itself, 77 percent of people said there is a need for urgent action regarding the Colorado River, and 83 percent of people said it is critical for the state’s economy.
Despite worrying deeply about water, survey respondents said they don’t know what sector uses the most water. In Colorado, 35 percent of people thought industry and business use the most water, 34 percent thought farmers and ranchers use the most water, and 29 percent thought people in their homes use the most.
According to the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, over 80 percent of the water in the state goes to agriculture.
“For most members of the public, their perceptions of water use are kind of based on what they see around them,” Metz said. “In most of these states, the weight of the public lives in cities or suburban areas that may be surrounded by a lot of agricultural land, but it's not where they spend most of their time. As a result, they tend to assume that well, households or small businesses are big, they're probably consuming large amounts.”
Given that, Metz said it wasn’t surprising that respondents didn’t know where most water in their states is used, but that it highlights an area that could use some public education.
When it came to solutions that would address inadequate water supply, over 80 percent of respondents agreed that investing in better water infrastructure, requiring local governments to determine whether there is enough water available before approving new residential development projects, and increasing the use of recycled water in homes and businesses were good moves.
In Colorado, 81 percent of people also supported providing financial incentives to homeowners and businesses to replace lawns and grassy areas with water-saving landscaping.
In a world where differences can often feel bigger than similarities, Metz says it doesn’t surprise him that conservation values in the West are so consistent and often cut across party lines. Through recessions, spikes in energy prices and changes in political administrations, people respond to what they see.
“All of those changes to the context don't do a lot to alter what they fundamentally value about living in these states, which is so tied to the outdoors,” Metz added. “It's a major reason why people move to these states, and why those who grow up in this part of the country stay there. That sort of direct day-to-day experience shapes their perceptions much more than what they're reading in the newspaper.”