February 2, 2021

By Ramona du Houx

11th annual Conservation in the West Poll reveals policy opportunities for new administration and Congress on public land conservation


Colorado College’s 11th annual State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll released in February showed a marked increase in levels of support for conservation, with voters in the Mountain West calling for bold action to protect nature as a new administration and Congress consider their public lands agendas.

The poll, which surveyed the views of voters in eight Mountain West states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), found 61 percent of voters are concerned about the future of nature, meaning land, water, air, and wildlife. Despite trying economic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of concern for things like loss of habitat for fish and wildlife, inadequate water supplies, pollution in the air and water, the loss of pollinators, uncontrollable wildfires, and climate change outpaced the overall level of concern about unemployment.

“We are seeing strong voter concern for nature, which is translating into calls for bold action on public lands in the West,” said Katrina Miller-Stevens, Director of the State of the Rockies Project and an Assistant Professor at Colorado College. “If federal and state policy leaders are looking for direction on public lands, the view from the West is clear.”

Westerners’ heightened concerns about their natural landscapes are matched with strong consensus behind proposals to conserve and protect the country’s outdoors.

  • 77 percent support setting a national goal of conserving 30 percent of land and waters in America by the year 2030, which was recently announced in an Executive Order by the new Biden administration.
  • 72 percent support making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution, meaning that the positive impacts of forests and lands to create clean air are greater than the carbon pollution caused by oil and gas development or mining.
  • 66 percent support gradually transitioning to 100 percent of our energy being produced from clean, renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower over the next ten to fifteen years.
  • 77 percent support restoring national monument protections to lands in the West which contain archaeological and Native American sites, but also have oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
  • 84 percent support creating new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and tribal protected areas to protect historic sites or outdoor recreation areas, in part because 77 percent of voters believe those types of protected public lands help the economy in their state.
  • 91 percent of voters in the West agree that despite state budget problems, we should still find money to protect their state’s land, water, and wildlife.

Conservation intersects with equity concerns

While 92 percent of Arizonans polled said the state should spend more money to protect public lands, yet just 81 percent of them supported funding programs to ensure access to parks and natural areas for lower-income people and communities of color.

“Nature can be a great equalizer,” said State Rep. Paul Evans of Oregon, Veteran (Rt.). “It’s criminal that structural racism distributes nature’s benefits unequally. Every American’s birthright makes each one of us an owner of our public lands. Every American deserves the opportunity to enjoy them. With the people supporting President Biden’s conservation efforts, we will make significant progress opening access up equally for all Americans.”

Communities of color are often disproportionately affected by environmental hazards like air and water pollution.

As a result of outright discrimination in housing, zoning and economic opportunity, people of color and low-income are more likely to live near power plants, incinerators, ports, refineries, oil and gas facilities, factories and other hubs of toxic pollution. These frontline “fence” communities are at greater risk to respiratory illnesses, cancer, premature births and death. 

“For too many, envisaging a park in their community would be like winning the lottery. Systemic racism and poverty have kept communities of color from accessing America’s national parks, public wilderness and hopes for a brighter future – their American dream,” said former New York Assistant Assemblyman Speaker Félix W. Ortiz, Army Veteran (Ret).

recent study from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London, found that one in five premature deaths can be attributed to fossil fuel air pollution. According to this new research, over 350,000 people in the United States died in 2018 from fossil fuel air pollution prematurely – numbers three times higher than previously suggested by other studies.

The study confirms that President Biden’s recent executive actions on climate change are critically important, as he is putting environmental justice at the heart of America’s policy agenda. The creation of a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council will help clean up communities disproportionately affected by pollution, as all government agencies now must ensure that 40 percent of climate investment benefits are targeted to communities of color and low income communities. 

“President Biden not only recognizes that for too long our government has contributed to discrimination and environmental injustice, now he’s taking bold action to right these wrongs that have tarnished America’s soul,” said former New York Assistant Assemblyman Speaker Félix W. Ortiz, Army Veteran (Ret). “This puts America on the path towards addressing the pollution that has been unjustly concentrated in communities of color and low-income. President Biden has stepped up to the plate to repair these injustices, while he builds back better.”

The poll broke new ground this year in examining the intersection of race with views on conservation priorities. Results were separated by responses from Black, Latino, and Native American voters, along with combined communities of color findings. The poll included an oversample of Black and Native American voters in the region in order to speak more confidently about the view of those communities.

The poll found notably higher percentages of Black voters, Latino voters, and Native American voters to be concerned about climate change, pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams, and the impact of oil and gas drilling on our land, air, and water. The poll also found higher levels of support within communities of color for bold conservation policies like the 30 percent conservation by 2030 effort, transitioning to one hundred percent renewable energy, and making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution.

Furthermore, the compilation showed a desire by strong majorities of Western voters for equitable access to public lands and to ensure local communities are heard:

73 percent of voters in the West 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.

83 percent of voters in the West support ensuring that Native American tribes have greater input into decisions made about areas within national public lands that contain sites sacred to or culturally important to their tribe.

Concerns over climate and fires are growing and viewed as interconnected

More voters than in the past expressed deep concern over both climate and wildfires. 51 percent of voters in the West say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, compared to 27 percent when the survey began in 2011 and 47 percent as recently as 2020. Similarly, 60 percent of voters in the West say uncontrollable wildfires that threaten homes and property are an extremely or very serious problem in their state, which is up from 32 percent in 2016 and 47 percent in 2020.

71 percent of voters in the West say wildfires are more of a problem than ten years ago, with 42 percent saying the reason is changes in the climate and 40 percent citing drought.

Sights on a cleaner and safer energy future on public lands

With oil and gas drilling taking place on half of America’s public lands, Western voters are well aware of the harmful impacts and want to ensure their public lands are protected and safe:

91 percent of voters support requiring oil and gas companies to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas and other pollution into the air.

93 percent support requiring oil and gas companies to pay for all of the clean-up and land restoration costs after drilling is finished.

Asked about what policy makers should place more emphasis on in upcoming decisions around public lands, 69 percent of Western voters pointed to conservation efforts and recreation usage, compared to 27 percent who preferred energy production.

Nearly three-fourths of Western voters want to significantly curb oil and gas development on public lands. 59 percent percent think that oil and gas development should be strictly limited on public lands and another 14 percent say it should be stopped completely. That is compared to 25 percent of voters in the West who would like to expand oil and gas development on public lands.

Growing support for water and wildlife protections

The level of concern among Westerners around water and wildlife issues is growing. 52 percent of voters in the West say loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, which represents a sharp increase compared to 38 percent in 2011 and 44 percent in 2020. 63 percent of voters in the West believe the loss of pollinators is an extremely or very serious problem. 54 percent of voters in the West also say pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, up from 42 percent in 2011 and 54 percent in 2020.

Those concerns translate into strong support among Western voters for water and wildlife protections:

  • 81 percent support designating portions of existing public lands where wildlife migrate each year as areas which should not be open to oil and gas drilling.
  • 85 percent support restoring Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands.
  • 73 percent support restoring protections for threatened species under the Endangered Species Act that were removed.
  • 67 percent support restoring limits on drilling or industrial activities that could negatively impact threatened wildlife on national public lands, such as sage-grouse.
  • 94 percent support dedicating funding to modernizing older water infrastructure and restoring natural areas that help communities protect sources of drinking water and withstand impacts of drought.

This is the eleventh consecutive year Colorado College has gauged the public’s sentiment on public lands and conservation issues. The 2021 Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll is a bipartisan survey conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.

The poll surveyed at least 400 registered voters in each of eight Western states (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, & WY) for a total 3,842-voter sample, which included an over-sample of Black and Native American voters. The survey was conducted between January 2-13, 2021 and the effective margin of error is +2.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval for the total sample; and at most +4.8 percent for each state. The full survey and individual state surveys are available on the State of the Rockies website.