The West taught me to care about conservation. In school, my professors taught me how to be a steward of the environment. My friends taught me how to appreciate the West’s untamed beauty. In the West, I felt solitude and freedom in the wild for the first time, and I began to learn how to protect it.
As an alumna of Colorado College, my education and lifestyle were predicated upon access to national monuments and public lands. I spent summers studying the ecology of flammulated owls in ponderosa pine forests in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I learned about eras of geology around Valles Caldera, New Mexico, and goshawks and Abert’s squirrels on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I squeezed through slot canyons in Escalante, Utah, whitewater rafted down the mighty Colorado River, and saw a “super bloom” carpeting Death Valley.
These protected wild places are the essence of the western United States. Their accessibility for education and recreation are what Theodore Roosevelt imagined for the National Parks System, where the “beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.” Our western landscapes– big-sky prairies, red dirt, and rugged peaks, populated by pronghorn, pika, and prairie chickens–should be available to anyone with the resolve to explore them. The perspective of those who live in this landscape is the most valuable in determining how to manage land, water and wildlife in the West. In a recent poll, Westerners’ voices are heard in resounding agreement.
“…beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Late last month, Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project released the Conservation in the West polling data. This was Colorado College’s eighth annual survey on bipartisan opinion on land, water, and wildlife issues in the polling states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The 2018 polls show a swell of support for protections on land, water, and wildlife, and disapproval of how the Trump administration handles environmental issues. According to the data, voters in conservative regions that voted Trump into office have come to disavow the president’s environmental policies.
In the West, Conservation is the Solution
These data offer a picture of staggering consensus within a polarized political model; they show that land, water, and wildlife issues resonate with Westerners beyond party lines. Respondents to this poll identified as 50% Democrat and 50% Republican, yet significantly more than half of Westerners supported environmental stances that fall in line with liberal initiatives. These polling results are crucial because they suggest a paradigm shift in the politics of conservation.
Colorado College’s Conservation in the West data is the best-case scenario we could have hoped for. People who support public lands are the motivation behind Wildlands Network’s work to rewild North America, and seeing so many people who support the environment must fortify the sense of purpose of all environmental organizations.
These data are incredibly positive for conservation organizations; they are the golden carriage that magically sprang from the pumpkin for environmentalists. The Westerner believes in conservation as a solution to our environmental crises. The poll’s findings have incredible implications for Wildlands Network’s conservation policies, wildway initiatives, and our wildlife campaigns gaining traction in the West.
Colorado College’s Conservation in the West poll demonstrates that Westerners believe protecting national public lands, water, and wildlife are serious issues. Respondents are concerned with the environmental future of their region under President Trump; 68% think the Trump administration’s rollbacks on environmental protections are a serious problem. Contrary to Trump’s plan to open more extraction sites on public lands, the majority of Westerners are against fossil-fuel extraction in these special places.
When asked their preference on what emphasis Trump should put on public lands, 64% said they want the Trump administration to ensure the protection of water, air, and wildlife and provide opportunities to visit and recreate on public lands, while just 23% believe in increasing the amount of national public lands available for drilling and mining. Westerners are optimistic about renewable energy futures, as 67% pointed to solar or wind energy as their top choice when asked about which energy sources best represents the future of their state.
Only 18% of respondents feel represented by their elected officials in Washington, D.C. It seems like Westerners’ high regard for accessibility and protection of public lands is a large factor contributing to their to rejection of Trump’s environmental policies. Respondents rejected the Trump administration’s decision to remove existing protections and reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The majority of Westerners recognize eliminating protections on public land as a bad idea, perhaps in part because of the effect outdoor recreation in national parks has on local economies. 82% of Westerners think national monuments help local economies, and a substantial 93% believe that the outdoor recreation economy is important for the West’s economic future.
Westerners are also concerned with river health and water levels. Nearly all respondents believe the pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams is a serious issue, and prioritize more sustainable water usage.
The poll finds that 13% more Westerners are self-described conservationists in the first year of the Trump Administration than in the final year of the Obama administration (up from 63% in 2016 to 76% today). And there is an occasion for people to want conservation. The place they call home is being opened up for drilling and mining, extraction companies are polluting their water, and their president is parceling out the land where they find their solitude and freedom. We live in a time when the environmental agenda is more threatened than ever.
Defending the Wild West
Like so many other Colorado College students, I learned humility and respect for nature from living in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. I would sit on my front porch during an electrical storm and feel the thunder deep inside my chest, watch the lightning explode out of the clouds in purple and white strokes like synapses firing. I have never seen a storm so angry and so beautiful as those in the West. The West needs protecting. Its environment needs protecting. The climate that produces those July late-afternoon storms needs someone to fight for its stability.
The Conservation in the West data show us in overwhelming numbers that Westerners believe their region is threatened by the Trump Administration. With someone to mobilize and organize them, these people can defend the West. Wildlands Network’s mission is timely and necessary in the western U.S., a region whose accessible and protected public lands are integral to its spirit and its economy. The Conservation in the West data underscore our ongoing conservation initiatives in the West, most notably our Western Wildway project and our Grand Canyon Watershed Campaign. With strong local support for conservation policy, and a coalition of passionate people volunteering on the ground, we can strengthen our efforts to reconnect the landscapes for migration and movement.
Despite different ideologies, the places we love can bring us together. These data show us both sides want the same things for their land, water, and wildlife. Protecting our beloved and diverse Western landscapes, and the economies, species, and people that rely on them has the capacity to bridge political divides for enduring wilderness.
How You Can Help
There are plenty of ways you can get involved and raise your voice to support public lands, especially in the West. Stand with us today!
- Volunteer with one of our partner organizations in the West.
- Call your senators and ask them to support the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act.
- Sign our Borderlands Petition to oppose Trump’s border wall.
- Donate to Wildlands Network.
Rebecca Hunter is an intern for our Pacific Wildway program. She studied organismal biology and ecology and English at Colorado College, where she was the primary investigator for a study on flammulated owls.