Survey: Public Land and Conservation Issues Important to Majority of Colorado Voters

Rocky Mountain National Park represents the public lands Western voters want to protect.
Rocky Mountain National Park represents the public lands Western voters want to protect. National Parks Service
Now that the field is set for November’s election, Colorado candidates are ramping up their campaigns — and one topic might unite voters rather than divide them, according to a new Winning the West poll released by the Center for Western Priorities.

The poll, conducted every two years since 2016, seeks to identify priorities for voters in western states with competitive races. This year’s iteration was conducted in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada by Benenson Strategy Group, and found that 90 percent of potential voters consider national public lands and park and wildlife issues important. And that result holds across the political spectrum, with 87 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Republicans saying that conservation issues will impact their vote.

“It's clear that candidates running for office in the West have an opportunity to connect with voters in a way that's really meaningful to voters, and it's across all parties,” says Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.

Rokala notes that public-land and other conservation issues played heavily in the 2020 Senate race, where John Hickenlooper ultimately beat incumbent Cory Gardner. While the Center for Western Priorities doesn’t take a partisan stance, Rokala says that similar issues are likely to play a role in this year’s governor’s race between Governor Jared Polis and Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl, as well as the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Michael Bennet and Republican candidate Joe O’Dea.

“There's a real opportunity for candidates, regardless of political party, to engage in these issues,” Rokala says. “Coloradans have strong conservation issues, and they want to see candidates running for public office support additional protection for public lands, designating national monuments or national parks, supporting a transition to clean energy.”

The survey found a level of dissatisfaction with the current administration's stance on public lands, with 69 percent of voters polled saying that they would feel more favorable toward President Joe Biden if he did more to focus on efforts to protect and conserve public lands, parks and wildlife. But the poll also found that only 43 percent of Western voters knew much about Biden’s conservation agenda, which indicates that candidates would do well to publicize their stance.

For example, 82 percent of Coloradans support the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, a collaborative effort by Bennet, Hickenlooper and Congressman Joe Neguse that would protect 400,000 acres of land in the state by designating them as wilderness, recreation or conservation areas. It would also establish Camp Hale as the country’s first national historic landscape, a designation that would apply to areas designed by an architect or other expert who contributed to the nation’s history.

The levels of support for conservation issues among Western voters is consistent with past iterations of the survey, Rokala says. But the level of frustration with Washington, D.C., is new, she adds: 77 percent of those polled report concerns that national politicians do not understand the way of life in the West, and said that decisions made in D.C. hurt the economy and quality of life in Western and rural areas.

According to the poll, Western voters think D.C. politicians don’t pay enough attention to drought, fire mitigation or climate change.

“Voters out here really respect, and want to see, the opportunity to enjoy outdoor recreation,” Rokala says. “They want to have the opportunity to protect rural communities. When you think about western Colorado, the San Luis Valley, protecting these areas both gives recreational opportunities and builds an outdoor recreation economy, but also preserves the open space, the public lands that people who live in these areas really want.”

Voters who were polled did not support the use of public lands for drilling or commercial purposes; only 21 percent of voters said they were favorable toward elected officials who support drilling on public land, and just 11 percent were favorable toward elected officials who want to use public land commercially.

Another hot topic this election cycle: gas prices. The poll found that many Westerners support a transition to clean energy as a means of reducing oil prices, including 82 percent of Coloradans. In fact, 75 percent of all survey respondents blame politicians blocking clean-energy policies for high prices, while 76 percent blame Vladmir Putin and 78 percent blame oil companies.

“Voters do support a transition to clean energy and clean fuel,” Rokala says. “They do understand that it's...oil companies reaping record profits and not passing savings on to consumers.”

The bulk of public lands in the country are found in the West, she points out, which could be one reason why voters in the West place such an importance on proper stewardship and preservation of those lands.

“Public lands and conservation issues, in a lot of ways, are issues that unite us as Westerners,” Rokala concludes.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire