Pandemic deepens connection of outdoor voters to public lands

Polling shows that support for the outdoors has only increased among Western voters during the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially driving election decisions.

Tyler McIntosh
Westwise

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Masked hikers enjoy a breath of fresh air during the coronavirus pandemic | National Park Service
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This week, the Center for Western Priorities released a new 2020 Winning the West poll, providing insight into how the events of 2020 have influenced Western opinions about public lands. Although the poll comes in the midst of a global pandemic, unstable oil markets, and protests against racial injustice, one thing is clear: passion for public lands and the outdoors has remained a constant for many Westerners. The latest polling shows that the importance of the outdoors to Western voters has remained strong through this time of upheaval, with the importance of public lands increasing for a third of voters.

The poll was conducted in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada. In these key Western swing states, the growing number of voters that make election decisions based on outdoor issues are critical to winning competitive elections. This year’s poll shows how support for public lands may drive election decisions; the poll demonstrates that Western voters want public land protection and environmental regulation, and examines reactions to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines in the context of outdoor recreation.

Support for public lands has only increased during the pandemic, and voters prefer pro-public lands candidates

34 percent of Western voters stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has made public lands, parks, and wildlife issues more important to them.

“Months of distance and isolation only deepened the shared connection Westerners have for public lands and the outdoors,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “As the 2020 election nears it will be worth watching to see if the outdoor voting bloc — the growing group of voters who base their candidate preferences on outdoor issues — will play an even more decisive role in the outcome of close races than in past election cycles.”

The bipartisan outdoor voting bloc certainly seems set to make its voice heard: 81 percent of Western voters say national public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are important to them in deciding which candidate to vote for in Presidential and Congressional elections.

In hypothetical candidate match-ups, a majority of Western voters selected candidates who would make protecting land, water, and wildlife a top priority, and who would support balanced energy development on public lands. Majorities of voters across the political spectrum also said that they would support candidates that made statements such as: “Public lands and parks provide some of the best opportunities to invest in America and get our people back to work,” “We need to protect MORE parks and public lands,” and “Climate change has made it clear that it’s more important than ever to protect our natural resources.”

Workers build trails for outdoor recreation | United States Forest Service

Politicians recognize the importance that voters place on protecting public lands. Just last week, an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the Senate voted to pass the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). The legislation includes funder for public lands maintenance as well as full permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which 74 percent of Westerners support. The successful passage of the GAOA in the Senate demonstrates how public lands unite us.

Western voters want public land protection and environmental regulation

In this time of uncertainty, a majority of Western voters agree that environmental protections matter now more than ever. 60 percent of Westerners oppose the Trump administration’s recent efforts to loosen environmental rules, while 53 percent want environmental regulations to go through regular comment periods regardless of external events.

Voters also oppose stimulus to oil, gas, and mining corporations, which the Interior Department under Secretary David Bernhardt has bent over backwards to provide. Instead, Western voters want to see stimulus packages for the industries that support strong local economies: outdoor recreation and tourism, small businesses, and agriculture.

Westerners are excited about bold, forward-looking conservation efforts. 75 percent of voters support establishing a national goal of protecting 30 percent of America by 2030, a vision led by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Nearly two-thirds of Westerners also support making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution to help combat the threat of climate change, as well as protecting sacred Native American landscapes rather than opening them to oil and gas development.

Outdoor lifestyles in the age of coronavirus

The latest Winning the West poll also examined Western outdoor lifestyles during the pandemic. Nearly all voters polled stated that they enjoyed open spaces as a respite during the current pandemic. The vast majority also said that they will visit a national or local park, lake, or river when it becomes safe to do so.

A masked ranger social distances with a visitor | National Park Service

For many Westerners, the concept of safety appears to be connected to responsible risk management. 58 percent of Westerners support a balanced, cautious approach to reopening national parks as opposed to pushing parks to either reopen as soon as possible or remain closed until the virus is gone. Additionally, 69 percent say that face coverings should be required to enter parks, trailheads, and trails when other people are around.

As Westerners continue to participate in and gauge the safety of outdoor recreation, the outdoors will likely become more important in the lives of many. As this trend continues, it will be worth watching to see how public lands issues will drive decisions in this election cycle.

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Tyler McIntosh
Westwise

Conservation Policy & Research Manager | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO