In the Rockies, Growing Support for Renewables

Source: By NATE SCHWEBER, New York Times • Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013

A regional poll found significant support for greater investment in wind and solar power.

State of the Rockies Project, Colorado CollegeA regional poll found significant support for greater investment in wind and solar power.

A new poll tracking the conservation attitudes of residents of the six Rocky Mountain States shows that support is strong for greater protection of public lands and investment in renewable energy. It also offers some clues to why public policy does not dovetail with public opinion in those areas.

In early January, two polling companies questioned 2,400 registered voters across Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Brendan Boepple, program coordinator for Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, said the results highlighted “the disparity between the reality and the rhetoric among Western voters.”

In a region where fossil fuel extraction has long been an economic linchpin, wind and solar ranked first in most states when voters were asked what two energy sources they wanted to see more money spent on.

In Arizona, for example, greater investment in solar energy was supported by 74 percent of those polled, and wind, by 43 percent. Support for more oil drilling and coal extraction registered at just 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively. (Support for solar power was far lower in Montana and Wyoming, however.)

“Overwhelmingly, they’re pointing to renewables,” said Lori Weigel, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, which regularly conducts polling for the Republican Party. The other polling firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, is associated with the Democratic Party.

A majority of respondents said that while some public lands should be drilled, environmentally sensitive places should be off limits forever. Ms. Weigel said the poll indicates that Rocky Mountain residents want a better balance.

“They don’t want to shut the door on development, but it’s pretty clear they want to see more protection,” she said. “They want to make sure that their clean water, clean air, wildlife and places to recreate are protected.”

The poll was released on Thursday, a day after the Obama administration announced the nomination of Sally Jewell as the new secretary of the interior. Ms. Jewell’s blend of oil expertise, enthusiasm for the outdoors and conservation advocacy is viewed by some as emblematic of the evolving land ethic across the Rocky Mountain states.

The survey results also come on the heels of a speech in Washington in which Bruce Babbitt, a former interior secretary, admonished the Obama administration for opening public lands to drilling without making commensurate conservation efforts.

Nine in ten people polled said that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife preserves are essential to the economy. Three in four said that those lands furnish good jobs, and more than seven in 10 said that no public lands should be sold to private corporations.

Three in five said that drilling should not be allowed in “critical locations” near recreation areas, water sources or wildlife. Only 35 percent said that more public lands should be opened to “responsible energy development.”

To reflect the region’s changing demographics, the poll was also conducted in Spanish. Sixty-four percent of Latino respondents described themselves as pro-conservationist, virtually mirroring the result for the Rocky Mountain states as a whole.

While support for more conservation has remained constant during the three years since the poll began, David Metz, who works for the Democratic-leaning polling company Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, said he set out this year to understand why western politics and policy depart in some ways from public opinion.

He learned that 54 percent of Rocky Mountain residents are unaware of how their leaders have voted with regard to protecting land, air and water. “People don’t have a clear idea of what their elected officials are doing,” Mr. Metz said.

For example, more than two-thirds of people interviewed either said that no drilling was taking place on public lands or that they didn’t have enough information to answer whether it was or not. In reality, 38 million public acres across the United States, including land in 42 national park units are leased for oil and gas drilling, something that most western lawmakers support.

“There’s a mismatch,” Mr. Metz said. “One of our goals with this poll is to show a common scientific set of data to better connect where public officials are and where the public is.”

The poll suggested that voters would have a “more favorable” impression of any candidate who voiced support for public land protection. But the degree varied depending on the candidate’s party affiliation.

The results suggest that Republican candidates stand to gain the most by championing land conservation; a Republican candidate who took that stance would draw support from more Democratic voters than a Democratic candidate would from Republicans.

Walt Hecox, faculty director for the State of the Rockies Project, argues that politicians should pay close attention to the study. “Westerners see the permanent protection of their public lands as an economic imperative and essential to their quality of life,” he said in a statement. “Decision-makers would do well to take notice.”

The poll also showed that while 85 percent of Rocky Mountain residents engage in at least one outdoor recreational activity, 83 percent of parents worry that children don’t spend enough time outside.