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The path to Westerners’ hearts—and votes—runs through public lands


Recreation on Arkansas River is an economic driver for Colorado. Image: Dvorak ExpeditionsRecreation on Arkansas River is an economic driver for Colorado. Image: Dvorak Expeditions

There’s a “Royal-Gorge-sized chasm between Coloradans” and some presidential candidates’ views on public lands, wildlife and conservation, says Ken Salazar.

The former Interior Secretary and U.S. senator was among the speakers at a news conference Tuesday who detailed what that they want to hear the candidates discuss. It was the day before the Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo.

Using the Royal Gorge as a metaphor was certainly apt. The gorge is a narrow, steep canyon about 10 miles long that’s carved out of granite by the Arkansas River, one of the country’s premier whitewater rafting and fishing destinations. The Arkansas, including the stretch that runs through the new Browns Canyon National Monument, are drivers in Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy, which the Outdoor Industry Association says generates an estimated $13.2 billion in spending annually. In eight other interior West states, outdoor recreation, including hunting and angling, produces a total of nearly $60 billion in spending, hundreds of thousands jobs and billions in tax revenue.

Valuing public lands

Reports by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development and Montana-based Headwaters Economics demonstrate that the quality of life and economic opportunities associated with public lands have helped spur the West’s economy.

As Salazar noted, Westerners understand the value and appeal of the region’s public lands, with their stunning scenery, rivers, backcountry to escape to and space for herds of elk, deer, pronghorns and other wildlife. Would-be political leaders should care, he added, because support for public lands can make a difference in the voting booth. A new bipartisan poll by the Outdoor Industry Association found that 84 percent of Colorado voters and 77 percent of Nevada voters say public lands, water and wildlife issues can sway their choices of candidates.

The poll also found that a majority of voters in both states oppose attempts in Western legislatures to take over the public lands that belong to all Americans. Similar moves are under way in Congress. Any transfers of public lands would likely lead to the loss of access to hunting, fishing and recreation spots and sales of land to the highest bidders when states couldn’t cover the management costs.

“Colorado voters, I know, oppose this idea,” Salazar said. “These proposals make absolutely no sense. These ideas deserve to be rejected.”

Ken Salazar, former Interior Secretary and U.S. senator from Colorado, says public lands, water and wildlife matter to voters in Colorado and the West. Image: Judith KohlerKen Salazar, former Interior Secretary and U.S. senator from Colorado, says public lands, water and wildlife matter to voters in Colorado and the West. Image: Judith Kohler

Conservation legacy

Another thing that doesn’t make sense is Congress’ failure to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he added. The 50-year-old landmark conservation program expired Sept. 30. A small portion of federal offshore drilling fees continue to be collected but they’re no longer flowing into the fund that has conserved natural areas and waterways, built trails and parks and protected our cultural heritage nationwide.

“LWCF helped create our conservation legacy,” Salazar said.

It’s been said the road to the White House goes through the West because Colorado and other key states have been swing states in presidential elections. What Salazar and other savvy political leaders know, and candidates should understand, is that the road goes right through some of our country’s most spectacular and important public lands and fish and wildlife habitat. Trying to sell off or carve up our outdoor American heritage is likely to turn into one big roadblock for politicians who don’t grasp their importance.     

About the Author
Judith Kohler

Judith Kohler is the regional communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo. Before joining NWF in 2011, she covered the environment, energy, politics and general news stories for The Associated Press in Colorado and Wyoming.

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