The other day, I passed a guy with a “Tree Huggers Suck” sticker on the windshield of his beat-up pickup. The first time I saw this truck was after a long, contentious day when a professional conservationist feels such as a lone voice in a wilderness study area, so I was further discouraged. This time, I just grinned as I now know I’m not alone.
Last month, 68 percent of Coloradans identified themselves as conservationists and 38 percent more identify themselves as hunters or anglers. Turns out there are more “tree huggers” than not here in Colorado.
Early this month, Colorado College released the results of its annual State of the Rockies bipartisan poll of Conservation in the West. I am encouraged to learn that this survey determined that almost all (98 percent) Coloradans, including those living in rural and urban areas, recognize that public lands are a vital part of the economy. Too often I hear that jobs are more important than the environment, but that’s not the case for the 93 percent of Coloradans who are more concerned about the health of Colorado’s water than unemployment.
For the past 11 years, the State of the Rockies project has sought to increase public understanding of the vital issues affecting the Rockies, and for the past four years, the project has included a survey of the attitudes of people living in six Rocky Mountain states. The public lands, clean water, fresh air and wildlife that we value are treasures in need of care and protection.
With my ears still are ringing with chants of “drill, baby drill,” the most contentious issue I’ve worked on has been balancing the need for energy extraction with environmental protections. Once again, as evidenced by this year’s poll, the majority of Coloradans want environmentally sensitive public lands to be permanently protected from oil and gas production. And where drilling does occur, twice as many Coloradans want stronger standards on drilling with none allowed near recreational areas, water sources and wildlife.
Most of the public lands in Moffat County are open for mineral development. Master leasing plans were developed to help balance mineral development with other uses of the land. The plans map out specific areas appropriate for oil and gas drilling and create protections where needed for wildlife, water and heritage sites. Oil and gas companies, local governments, local businesses, environmental organizations and the public are able to provide input in the design of the plan. More than twice as many people side with proponents of this new tool than detractors. Environmental groups such as Conservation Colorado have been at the forefront of proposing these more collaborative ways of managing our public lands.
The State of the Rockies poll shows that conservation continues to be valued by Colorado voters. Our political leaders are creating regulations inline with these values as evidenced by our state’s national leadership in reducing our carbon pollution and promoting renewable energy. Colorado voters view conservation to be important regardless of their political affiliation.
Politicians, especially those up for reelection this year and the candidates hoping to unseat them, should carefully consider their conservation platforms. Seventy-two percent of Westerners are more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to promote more use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Sixty-nine percent of Westerners are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports enhancing protections for some public lands, such as national forests. Fifty-eight percent of Westerners are more likely to support a candidate who votes to increase funding for land-managing agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.
The survey also holds warning signs for candidates, including: 72 percent of Westerners are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports selling public lands such as national forests to reduce the budget deficit. Sixty-seven percent of Westerners are less likely to vote for a candidate who reduces funding for agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. Fifty-four percent of Westerners are less likely to support a candidate who voted to stop taxpayer support for solar and wind energy companies.
A love of our vast public lands and the wildlife and the clean air and water that these lands foster is what connects the often cantankerous and independent people of the West. The State of the Rockies project and its annual poll help educate us all and gives our elected officials a gauge of the minds of Colorado voters. It turns out most of us are “tree huggers,” after all.