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People in the Western US Really Do Want Federal Regulation of Land

A new poll reveals deep support in seven western states for national park designations and federal, rather than state, control over land set aside for public use.

by Eva Hershaw
Jan 12 2016, 9:10pm

Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP

As the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon enters its second week, a new public opinion poll shows that a majority of people surveyed in seven states in the American West do not share the demands of Ammon Bundy's armed, camouflage-clad militia.

The State of the Rockies Project at Colorado College surveyed 2,800 residents in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and found "strong public support" for federal efforts to preserve and regulate land.

The survey found that 58 percent of respondents oppose giving state governments control over national public lands and 60 percent oppose selling significant public land holdings, such as national forests, to reduce the budget deficit. Seventy-two percent of respondents believed that national public lands help their state economy.

'Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region.'

While the poll did not include the state of Oregon, for US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees National Park Service operations, said the poll numbers confirmed local support for federal conservation initiatives.

"These findings show us that the Bundy family … are far out of touch with most folks living in the West," Salazar said during a press call on Monday. "Anyone who tells us to hand public lands over to private owners and the state are telling us a story that won't stand the test of time."

The poll marks the college's sixth consecutive attempt to gauge public sentiment on public land conservation. And according to Brendan Boepple, assistant director of State of the Rockies Project, support for public lands has remained consistent since the team began polling.

"We have seen pretty consistent support for public lands and for protection of land, air, and water," said Boepple. "Over the past six years, we have continued to see strong support on these issues."

He noted that public opinion had shifted in other polling areas, such as concern over US dependence on foreign oil — in 2012, 94 percent of respondents thought this was serious, while in 2016 that number has dropped to 73 percent.

Related: Here's What the Oregon Occupiers and the GOP Presidential Candidates Agree On

The poll was carried out prior to the Oregon occupation. But Boepple believes it is an accurate representation of prevailing western attitudes towards public lands.

"[The poll] doesn't reflect the current events or atmosphere," he said, referencing the standoff in Oregon. "But regardless of the current climate, it shows attitudes about the transfer of federal lands to states and that respondents see great value in public lands in these states, such as the Malheur Wildlife Refuge."

In addition to asking questions about land ownership, researchers addressed use of the Antiquities Act, which give the president the authority to create and protect national monuments, as well as the importance that public lands would play in the upcoming presidential election.

Eighty percent of respondents said they support future presidents using the act to protect national monuments, while 75 percent said issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife are an important factor in deciding whether to support an elected official.

"Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region," Eric Perramond, a professor of human-environmental geography at Colorado College, in a said in release accompanying the polling data.

Related: Birdwatchers Have Their Feathers Ruffled Over Oregon Occupiers

That this controversy would arrive in the West is of no surprise: The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres of land in the US – roughly 28 percent of area in the United States, while 46.9 percent of land in the 11 coterminous western states is in the hands of the federal government. In Alaska, which was not included in the Colorado College poll, the federal government owns 61.2 percent of all land.

Roughly 95 percent of all federal land is managed by four agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service. A small amount of federal land is administered by the Department of Defense (DOD).

In the last 15 years, the total amount of land under federal ownership has declined by 23.5 million acres, though most of this has been in the form of land disposals in Alaska and reductions in DOD land, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity believes that federal ownership of public lands has remained generally stable in the lower 48 states because of its popularity.

"What the militant groups in Oregon are missing, and it's ironic – they talk about the freedom of our lands, but their actions are shutting out everyone else who wants to utilize these lands," said Spivak. "They are looking for a gain for a few, but when you have federal ownership of public lands, it's for the enjoyment of many."

"These lands are owned by the public," she added. "And they are here forever."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva

Watch The Oregon Standoff: A Community Divided here: