Poll: Westerners reject Trump administration’s approach to public lands and “energy dominance”
As the Interior Department gives lip service to a balanced approach, Western voters call for the real thing
In Colorado College’s ninth annual Conservation in the West Poll, released this week, Western voters definitively rejected the Trump administration’s energy-first approach to managing America’s public lands. By a rate of nearly three to one, Westerners prefer policy makers emphasize protecting public lands and waters over increasing energy development.
According to the poll, 75 percent of Westerners view the rollback of laws that protect the nation’s lands and waters as a serious problem, with 49 percent indicating that the erosion of conservation laws is an extremely or very serious problem. Public lands and access to the outdoors sit at the center of the Western way of life; this year’s Conservation in the West Poll is a strong indication that voters are unwilling to let the Trump administration’s efforts to chip away at the West’s outdoor heritage slide.
Republican pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates collaborated on the bipartisan poll to survey voters in eight Mountain West states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) on policies impacting the use of America’s public lands.
Since the start of the Trump administration, the Interior Department — which manages the vast majority of the nation’s public lands — has embraced the president’s campaign trail promise: “We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”
But when asked which approach to public land management they prefer, maximizing energy development or protecting public lands and waters, Westerners resoundingly reject the administration’s energy-first approach. Just 24 percent want the new Congress to ensure more domestic energy production by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining. On the flip side, 65 percent of Western voters want Congress to protect sources of clean water, our air quality, and wildlife habitat, while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands.
In an email to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Interior Department spokesman Eli Nachmany tried to have it both ways:
“This poll presents a false choice between responsible energy development and conservation. Dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, the promise of America’s public lands system has been multiple-use. The Trump administration is striking a balance on federal lands, collaborating with states, local communities, and private partners to keep the great outdoors great, including the expansion of access to hundreds of thousands of acres of public land. At the same time, the President recognizes that American energy dominance is the path to American sovereignty, security, and economic freedom.”
Emphasizing oil and gas development — in pursuit of President Trump’s effort to achieve American “energy dominance” — has come at the cost of conserving wildlife, providing opportunities for outdoor recreation, safeguarding water quality, and protecting Native American cultural artifacts. The two-year track record stands in stark contrast to Westerners’ expectations that the Interior Department strike a balance in managing our public lands.
Specifically, the poll found voters disapprove of four major Trump administration policy changes related to public lands and waters: trimming the boundaries of national monuments (66 percent bad change, 13 percent good change), reducing the amount of time the public can comment on oil and gas leasing decisions (55 percent bad change, 17 percent good change), allowing increased energy development on critical sage-grouse habitat (50 percent bad change, 21 percent good change), and limiting Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and wetlands (60 percent bad change, 17 percent good change). This was true across every Western state, with more voters rejecting the Trump administration’s public lands policy actions than supporting them.
A recent Center for Western Priorities poll by Keating Research — conducted in Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s home state of Colorado — confirms that Westerners aren’t satisfied with the administration’s lip service to balance. Seventy-four percent of Colorado voters said the Interior Department must do a better job striking a balance between preserving public lands and responsible energy development under Bernhardt’s leadership. That’s compared to just 8 percent who said that the agency should emphasize increasing oil and gas development.
The Interior Department is currently at an inflection point as the White House weighs replacements for former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (some signs point to Acting Secretary Bernhardt or former Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis). According to the Conservation in the West Poll, Westerners are looking for a secretary who emphasizes conservation of wildlife and nature and who bases decisions in science above all else. Unfortunately, if the track records of Secretary Zinke and Acting Secretary Bernhardt are any indication, the Trump administration is likely to choose someone who favors drilling and mining companies over Westerner’s expectations of balance and conservation. For the sake of our public lands, let’s hope we’re wrong.