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Western wildfires, drought, coronavirus boost public fears about the state of public lands, new polls shows

The survey of people in Colorado and 7 western states reveals spiking concerns about climate change, strong support for action, and how communities of color take public lands issues personally

New polling shows deep public concern over protecting lands from climate change and wildfires like the East Troublesome fire, the second largest in Colorado history, which burned through Rocky Mountain National Park in 2020. (Handout from Rocky Mountain National Park)
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Public alarm over the growing threats of climate change to Western lands and waters has doubled in the past decade, and Coloradans are even more worried than their neighbors about the ongoing drought’s brutal draining of rivers and lakes, according to new results from a long-term, eight-state poll run by Colorado College. 

People of color in the West, meanwhile, often express even higher levels of concern about dangers to public lands than their white counterparts, and see the decline as more of a direct attack on their neighborhoods, jobs and economic security, poll analysts said. 

“There’s a growing sense in the Rocky Mountain West that this is an issue that affects people directly, reflected in wildfires and drought,” said pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy, who co-conducted the poll of nearly 4,000 westerners for Colorado College’s State of the Rockies program. 

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The poll has been taken annually in five western states since 2011, and in others since then, covering Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. 

Pollsters intentionally sampled hundreds more Black, Latino and indigenous people than in previous years in order to go deeper on questions and get a more representative sense of equity concerns, organizers said. Those responses were then proportionally weighted when added into aggregate responses. With the broad sample, the overall margin of error for the poll is thought to be just over 2%, with slightly higher margins for individual states.

People of color responded with a heightened sense of personal passion about protecting the environment, said Maite Arce, president and chief executive of the Hispanic Access Foundation, which helped design the poll of registered voters and analyzed results. 

“Because we are talking about much more than protecting land and water,” Arce said. “It has to do with health, economy, work, heritage and social justice. Communities of color often are disproportionately affected.” 

Surveys of American cities, for example, Denver included, show neighborhoods with higher proportions of lower income residents and residents of color enjoy far less green space and recreation opportunity than higher income, white-dominated areas. Publicly held lands, moreover, were often originally confiscated from Native American tribes, or were traditionally used in common by Hispanic communities in the Southwest.

Among voters of color in the West overall, 64% said in 2021 that climate change is extremely or very serious, while the portion of white voters was 48%. Answers within communities of color are also significant, Weigel said, with extreme or serious concern existing for 64% of Latinos, 54% of Black voters, and a “stunning” 73% among Native Americans. 

The portion of the overall Western population that sees climate change as a “very serious” problem has grown from 27% in 2011 to 54% this year, noted pollster Dave Metz, principal and president of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. Metz traditionally works for Democrats, while Weigel often works for Republicans, as Colorado College has sought bipartisanship in designing and executing the polls.

With every single issue, Metz said, the polling shows “bigger concern over time.” 

In a new question this year, 61% of the overall population said they were worried about the future of nature and public lands, while just 36% described themselves as “hopeful.” Younger voters are even more worried, at 70%. 

A summer and fall of record wildfires in Colorado, and massive fires in other states, has also bored deep into public consciousness, the pollsters said. Ninety percent of westerners show serious concerns about wildfires on public lands, up from 77% in 2016. 

Questions for nearly 4,000 registered voters in 8 Western states were sponsored by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project.

A year of personal restrictions related to coronavirus have also deeply influenced the public’s attitudes toward parks and other natural spaces, the poll revealed. If there is a relative return to normalcy in public movement in 2021, respondents said, 57% will visit public lands more often than they used to. About 39% said their habits wouldn’t change, while 4% said they would visit less often. 

There’s a “pent-up demand to get back out there,” the pollsters said. 

At the same time, Westerners know it’s going to be crowded when they do get back out. 

Asked in detail what might be their biggest barriers to getting out to public lands, 37% of Coloradans said their main reason would be overcrowding, with 45% giving that answer in Utah. The elbow-room response happened far more often than other options of parks being too far away, or trips costing too much, Weigel said. 

For politicians, regulators and community advocates, Metz said, the other half of the message from the polling is that consensus for government doing more to protect lands and waters has always been strong and is now overwhelming. The consensus to invest more in conservation is up to 92% of voters now, from 84% in 2011, and is nearly equal across the Western states. Those feelings also cross the partisan spectrum, Metz said, with 98% of Democrats wanting more protection and 87% of Republicans. 

For individual conservation policies, there is large majority support for conservationists’ stated goal of protecting 30% of all lands and waters by 2030, up from 12% of lands and 23% of oceans protected in the U.S. currently. 

About 73% of the public supports more funding to increase access for communities of color and lower income residents. More than 74% of Coloradans support a “net-zero” carbon policy for public lands, saying any development has to be regulated to ensure nothing from that land adds to greenhouse gases. 


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