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When the people lead, (we hope) the wayward politicians will follow

From my job as a reporter covering politics and environmental issues to my current work as a communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation, I’ve been mystified by something: why do certain Western politicians rail against the very things that make this part of the country the best place to live?

I’m talking about the sweeping, open spaces; the remote forested spots with cold, clear creeks running through them; the cluster of deer in the next clearing; the buff-colored pronghorns almost invisible against a grassy hillside in eastern Wyoming.

It’s not like these politicians run on explicitly anti-wildlife platforms or publicly call for paving wilderness areas. Instead, they demand multiple use of public lands.

In other words, they believe that an acre of public land just sitting there, with nothing on it, must be going to waste.

Some Western lawmakers are reviving the old standby of selling or turning public lands over to the states. The justification is that the federal government needs the money and should shed the burden of managing the vast tracts of high desert, forests and grasslands.

In other words, these lawmakers believe that an acre of public land just sitting there, with nothing on it, must be going to waste.

Besides wondering how Westerners of any stripe can think that way, I’ve long been puzzled by something else. Why do born and bred Westerners who wouldn’t live anywhere else or people who move here after falling in love with the mountains or fishing the Madison River support politicians whose policies jeopardize what makes this region special?

Gettin' the 411 on public lands

I believe politicians’ motives for wanting to develop and/or get rid of public lands are varied. The answer to why voters elect candidates who don’t share their support of conservation might lie in the results of a new survey. Conservation-minded voters likely don’t know the candidates’ views on conservation. That’s according to Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll.

Here are a few key findings by a bipartisan team that surveyed Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona:

  • Four in five voters view public lands as beneficial for their state’s economy and quality of life rather than detrimental.
  • Majorities in each state oppose selling public lands as a way to reduce the budget deficit.
  • A majority of voters believe some public lands should be drilled while environmentally sensitive areas should be permanently protected.
  • A majority of voters across the political spectrum, including key swing voters, would favorably view pro-conservation candidates.

But here’s the rub: the survey found that most of the voters in the six states aren’t aware of their representatives’ records on conservation.

Another revelation: most voters said they don’t know whether oil and gas drilling is occurring on public lands.

That news might discourage people who’ve worked hard to educate the public about the issues and hold public officials accountable for opposing sensible regulations protecting fish, wildlife, air and water quality and special Western landscapes. 

However, I find it encouraging. It shows the majority of people in the region value public lands for more than the oil, gas, coal, uranium or gold that can be extracted or the trees that can be cut. They don’t have to be convinced of the value of an acre of public land that's just sitting there, with nothing on it but a herd of mule deer or a prime fishing hole; they just need more information.

Not that using our natural resources is bad. I grew up in an area where mining provided good-paying jobs with benefits for generations of workers. My brother makes a living as a logger in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We will continue to use oil and gas as we move toward using more renewable energy.

At the same time, the era of viewing our public lands as merely an obstacle to development is coming to an end. I believe that and the survey results show it. Plenty of studies show the economic benefits that public lands generate through jobs, tourism and the appeal they hold for businesses, professionals and retirees seeking a high quality of life.

And then there’s the unique privilege of living in a highly industrialized country, the world’s No. 1 economic power, that still has migrating herds of mule deer and pronghorns, cutthroat trout whose genetics can be traced to the last Ice Age,  grizzlies, lynx, wolves and places you can wander without seeing another person or hearing traffic.

I am hopeful that as Westerners learn more about what happens on public lands and what their elected representatives think about it, the more those elected officials’ policies and votes will mirror their constituents’ pro-conservation stances.

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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