Across the West, public lands played winning role in key races

By Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Colorado’s Browns Canyon National Monument | Bureau of Land Management

This fall voters across the West not only cast their votes for president, they decided races for governor, senators and representatives. Public lands played a prominent role in a number of Western races, with candidates touting their commitment to protecting public lands and preserving access for hunting, fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation. These positions echoed the findings of our Winning the West public opinion research, which surveyed likely voters in Montana, Nevada and Colorado. From the campaigns to the resulting decisions it is clear that Westerners value our outdoor way of life and supporting national public lands is a winning issue across party lines. While public lands played a role in many races, here are three that stood out.

Montana Governor

Governor Steve Bullock | Montana Office of the Governor

In a closely watched race, incumbent Governor Steve Bullock (D) narrowly defeated businessman Greg Gianforte (R). Though Donald Trump won Montana with 56.5 percent of the vote, Governor Bullock was able split many tickets by focusing on his support for continued access to public lands. Many Montanans are avid hunters, anglers, campers and hikers, and 95 percent agree that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges are an essential part of the state’s quality of life.

Governor Bullock’s platform included commitments to protect the state’s outdoor heritage, oppose transferring national public lands, and a proposal to launch a state office of outdoor recreation. Throughout the race, Governor Bullock criticized his opponent for suing the state of Montana in an effort to close public access to a river on the edge of his property. This proved to be a key issue, as Montanans of all parties support the state’s Stream Access Law, including 68 percent of Republicans, which allows public access to rivers and streams for recreational purposes regardless of the surrounding property owner.

Nevada’s 4th Congressional District

In Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, Democratic State Senator Ruben Kihuen defeated Republican incumbent Cresent Hardy 48.5 percent to 44.6 percent. In his time in office, Representative Hardy served on the House Natural Resources Committee, often supporting efforts to take national public lands and dispose of them into state and private hands.

Throughout the campaign, Ruben Kihuen attacked Representative Hardy’s efforts to weaken public land management and his support for scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy, who led an armed standoff with federal agents after failing to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines for grazing his cattle on public lands. In endorsing Ruben Kihuen, the Las Vegas Sun also noted Representative Hardy’s sympathy for Cliven Bundy’s anti-government views.

Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

Representative Scott Tipton (R) survived a strongly contested race, defeating former state senator Gail Schwartz (D), 55 percent to 40 percent. Encompassing an enormous swath of southwestern Colorado, the 3rd congressional district includes significant amounts of public land, including national parks, monuments and forests.

In her stump speeches and advertisements, Gail Schwartz touted her strong support for preserving and protecting public lands, while attacking Scott Tipton for not supporting public lands and for allowing his leading donor, gas company SG Interests, to write proposed legislation concerning drilling in Colorado’s scenic Thompson Divide. Recognizing that public lands are a winning issue, Representative Tipton moved rapidly towards the center by touting his support for designating Chimney Rock a national monument and his bipartisan efforts with Senators Michael Bennet (D) and Mark Udall (D) to pass legislation protecting the Hermosa Creek watershed in southwestern Colorado.

It is clear that mining for coal and drilling for oil and gas, particularly on public lands, will be a focus of the Trump administration. Energy production has long happened on our public lands and it will continue to play a role in the future. However, it is absolutely critical that responsible energy production be balanced with conservation and increasing opportunities for outdoor recreation. These election results show that Westerners care deeply about our public lands and conserving them for future generations, a lesson that will remain true for future candidates looking to win in the West. Elected officials would be wise to heed voters call to support our national public lands.