MISSOULA — For the 10th year in a row, a majority of Western voters agreed the environment is a priority, but now, climate change is also at the top of the list, according to a Colorado College poll.
On Thursday, the Colorado College State of the Rockies Projec t released the results of its 10th Conservation in the West poll showing that some of the policies of the Trump administration don’t align with Western preferences.
Support for certain issues haven’t changed much over the decade, said New Bridge Strategy pollster Lori Weigel.
A large majority of voters – 80 percent – still say the environment is important when looking at whether to support an elected official. Montana led in that category with 84 percent saying it was important.
Most voters also consider themselves to be conservationists, especially in Montana where 75 percent make that claim. Weigel attributed that to the fact that more than half of the Montana respondents say they’re hunters and anglers.
Two-thirds of voters said they supported preserving public lands over opening them to drilling or mining. That runs counter to the priorities outlined in the recent Bureau of Land Management resource management plans for Montana or the Trump administration’s recent move to open areas formerly in the Bears Ears and Grand Escalante national monuments to oil and gas.
“That was the case across party lines,” Weigel said. “More Republicans, more independent affiliated voters and more Democrats told us they’d rather their member of Congress put more emphasis on conservation values when it came to public lands.”
Gov. Steve Bullock, who was on his way to Colorado College to participate in an associate symposium, said the results show that people in the West have a deep appreciation of public lands that shouldn’t be ignored. Bullock made public land conservation a top priority while he was governor.
“We know those who came before us believe setting lands aside to be used by all is certainly one of our nation’s greatest ideas. It’s an idea that can and must survive the generations,” Bullock said. “At the same time, folks in the West recognize that public lands are under attack.
“Corporations and individuals are interested in eroding our parks and forests, reducing access, or transferring and selling off our lands, while leaders in D.C. are allowing drilling and mining on protected land and gutting funding the West relies on to protect and enhance outdoor spaces.”
Related to that funding, Weigel said public support has always been strong for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a fund that uses offshore drilling royalties for the purchase or improvement of public land, including state and city parks. The question associated with the LWCF has varied over time; this year, it asked whether voters supported allocating the full $900 million to the fund, which Congress has never done.
More than two-thirds of voters were in support, with almost a quarter strongly supporting.
With other issues, the pollsters are seeing large shifts in public opinion over the past 10 years.
Weigel said voters’ concern has grown over the loss of habitat for fish and wildlife with 77 percent saying it’s a serious problem. Also, people have become more aware of migration corridors and while 70 percent support protecting corridors, more than half strongly support such efforts.
That’s why 79 percent support a “30-by-30” plan to protect 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030.
But the largest shift in opinion centers on climate change, said pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.
“Changing climate has enormous effects on all these things that Westerners hold dear, whether it’s land, water or wildlife,” Metz said. “This year’s data show that increasingly, Westerners are both aware of the risk that climate change poses and supportive of action to address it.”
Metz said when he asks voters to list off the top of their heads issues that are important, pollution and water have always been mentioned the most. But now, climate change has moved into second place, moving ahead of water. In the West, that’s partly due to the increase in extreme wildfires brought on by heat and drought associated with climate change, Metz said.
The concern crosses party lines with 16 percent of Republicans, 39 percent of independents and 54 percent of Democrats saying it’s their number one issue.
“Ten years ago in our initial five states, only 27 percent of Western voters viewed climate change as a very serious problem. That figure has leapt to 46 percent today,” Metz said.
Montana was one of the original five states, in addition to Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Idaho, Arizona and Nevada were added later.
In Montana, almost 60 percent of voters said climate change will be a significant factor over the next 10 years. Only in Wyoming did less than half – 49 percent – say climate change wouldn’t be significant in the future.
Three out of every five voters said action should be take to address climate change while three-quarters said elected officials should have a plan for how to deal with climate change.
With climate change affecting the predictability of precipitation, 80 percent of voters said water supplies will be a serious problem.
Finally, this was the first year the poll asked about microplastic pollution and 79 percent of voters said it was a serious problem with 52 percent saying it’s very serious.
“Here’s the bottom line: conservation is wildly popular. Acting on climate – wildly popular. We have our marching orders,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “The only question is whether national policy makers listen to the people or listen to the special interests who want to sell our lands and environment off to the highest bidder.”