US Public Overwhelmingly Prefers To Protect Public Lands, Continue Developing Clean Energy

If Twitter is any indication, the court of public opinion has ruled against the armed “militiamen” who took over a wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon.

They’ve been called #YallQueda, #VanillaISIS and #YeeHawdists, and they claim to have stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in response to the federal sentence handed down to convicted arsonist and rancher Dwight Hammond.

Hammond is considered a hero by right-wing movements in the Western United States that think it’s heroic to fight federal authorities who seek to protect lands that belong to all Americans. But, cruel hashtags notwithstanding, it wasn’t clear how much support the YeeHawdists and the pro-logging, pro-mining, pro-ranching movements that spawned them have among the general public.

Until now. Thanks to Colorado College’s sixth annual Conservation in the West Poll, we have the data.

The poll surveyed 2,800 registered voters in seven Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — on key public lands issues such as proposals to designate new national monuments, environmental and safety standards for oil and gas drilling and renewable energy production on public lands.

The vast majority of Americans want the feds to maintain control of public lands: 58 percent of respondents oppose giving control to state governments, and 60 percent of respondents oppose selling significant holdings of public lands, like national forests, as a means of reducing the federal budget deficit.

Just 30 percent of respondents in Nevada identified themselves as supporters of Cliven Bundy, the local rancher who led an armed stand-off with federal authorities in April 2014 and whose son, Ammon, is leading the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines,” Eric Perramond, professor in the Southwest Studies and Environmental Programs at Colorado College, said in a statement, “but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region.”


Image via the 2016 Conservation in the West Poll.

Though it's often considered to be a controversial subject in the West, the designation of new national monuments is quite widely supported.

In Utah, for instance, a tribal proposal to protect nearly two million acres of public lands around the Bears Ears Buttes as a national monument enjoys 66 percent support from poll respondents. And in Arizona, 73 percent of respondents approve of a proposal to protect 1.7 million acres of public lands around the Grand Canyon.

Though the poll found residents of the Western US were more balanced in their views toward how private industry should be allowed to use national public lands, there was a discernible preference for reining in and even phasing out fossil fuel production while ramping up renewable energy.

Some 52 percent of respondents said they approve of continued drilling and mining at the current pace, but only with increased safeguards for land and water — more than five times the number of people who want to increase drilling and mining (10 percent) or maintain the current pace without additional safeguards (10 percent).

Notably, stopping all drilling and mining was preferred by 22 percent of respondents — more than twice as many as those who wanted to increase drilling and mining.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of respondents want to continue tax incentives for solar and wind energy production. About 63 percent of respondents want to encourage the use of solar and wind energy, and just 3 percent want to encourage the use of oil and coal. A little less than half — 48 percent of respondents — support gradually reducing the number of new coal mines, whereas just 31 percent oppose that idea.

Perhaps with the ongoing public health crisis at a Southern California Gas Co. methane storage facility fresh in their minds, 80 percent of respondents said they support a proposed Obama Administration rule that would require oil and gas producers who operate on national public lands to use updated equipment and the latest technology in order to prevent leaks of methane gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas into the atmosphere.

So, no, it does not appear the public supports the ideals of VanillaISIS, who think it’s their sovereign right to use the land however they want with no interference from the government. As a matter of fact, 58 percent of the public even wants companies that drill for oil and gas or mine for coal and minerals on national public lands to pay higher royalties for the privilege of doing so.

“These results make clear Western communities care deeply about the public lands that embody the best of our nation’s culture, spirit and beauty,” former U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said in response to the poll. “Western voters see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life, and they certainly don’t want to see their public lands seized by ideologues or sold off by politicians in Washington.”
  

Image Credit: “Grand Canyon Morningf” via Les Haines / Flickr