Coloradans love their public lands, poll says, but some think national monuments harm the local economy

Coloradans love their public lands, poll says, but some think national monuments harm the local economy

For eight straight years, the “Conservation in the West” poll of residents in eight Western states has shown growing support for public lands and protecting those wild places — so much so, that across those states brimming with public land, three-quarters of them described themselves as conservationists this year, up from a little more than 60 percent in 2016.


That’s a significant swing because people tend not to change how they think of themselves, said Public Opinion Strategies pollster Lori Weigel, who this month helped interview 3,200 residents in the states for the annual survey by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project.


“I think we are seeing a boost in intensity from what we have seen in the past,” Weigel said.


That vigor seems to be stemming from President Donald Trump. The poll shows disapproval for Trump’s call to carve almost 2 million acres from national monuments in Utah, with 70 percent of Colorado residents saying the shrinking of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments was a bad call. Coloradans have a strong affinity for national monuments, with 86 percent of those polled saying the protected federal lands help nearby economies.


Still, while more than 90 percent of Colorado respondents said the state’s national monuments were treasures worthy of conservation, about a quarter of them said the monuments injure the local economy and tie up land that could be used for other purposes.


Other actions pursued recently by the Trump administration were not received well by Coloradans who were polled.



  • 44 percent oppose raising entrance fees at national parks, with 40 percent supporting.

  • 53 percent oppose privatizing management of services on public lands.

  • 63 percent oppose expanding availability of public lands for drilling.

  • 60 percent oppose expanding availability of public lands for uranium mining.

  • 72 percent oppose mining on public lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park.

  • 67 percent oppose changing habitat protection plans for sage grouse.

  • 74 percent support requiring oil and gas producers on public lands to use updated equipment to prevent methane gas leaks and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas, a regulation the Trump administration wants to overturn.


The poll numbers are evidence of a perception of trouble for public lands, said Amy Roberts, the head of Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association, which this week is hosting its venerable Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver for the first time.


She pointed to survey results showing more than 90 percent of Westerners saying national monuments should be conserved for future generations, were places to learn about America’s history and heritage, and places they wanted to someday show their children.


“It’s human nature to be a bit complacent when you don’t feel like things you care about are under threat,” Roberts said. “This year, we saw that is not the case. To get all these numbers over 90 percent, obviously both Democrats and Republicans feel this way.”


The Outdoor Industry Association three times has weighed the economic impact of the outdoor industry, estimating most recently that outdoor businesses and consumers spur $887 billion in spending a year, a figure that establishes the industry as a leading national economic engine.


And that economic impact is getting recognized by Westerners, who are realizing that open spaces and outdoor play is a critical foundation for economic development of all stripes.


“We clearly see that people are making a connection between the economy and outdoor recreation,” Weigel said, noting that 72 percent of respondents from all eight states said public lands help their state’s economy. “They see the growth and they get that people want to be here for the public lands and outdoor lifestyle.”


Colorado College economics professor Walt Hecox, who founded the school’s State of the Rockies Project, has spent his career researching the evolution of economies anchored in Rocky Mountain resources. It started with mining, forests, grazing, and oil and gas. The economy now leans heavily on amenity resources — including tourism, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking and skiing — in addition to traditional extractive industries.



“We are seeing this big change where these natural resources are more valuable when they are left alone,” Hecox said. “I think the Rockies will always be resource-based. But not in like the mining or logging eras. We are now in the amenity era.”


The challenge for the industry is converting its economic power into political influence that can sway how public lands are managed for uses that include gazing as much as taking.


Watch for that emerging political clout in the national midterm and even local elections this year, Roberts said.


“I think the 2018 midterms will be a watershed moment,” she said. “People running for office in Western states have a choice to make whether they support public lands and pubic lands funding or not, and that’s going to be an issue on top of a lot of voters’ minds.”