In an Era of Divisions, Public Lands Offer Unity

Yosemite park

Few issues in the West have been as divisive as public lands. Conservation, recreation, mining, logging, ranching, fishing, camping and wilderness are often at odds. The divides are usually seen along urban-rural lines and left-right political lines. But, when national politics seem more divided that ever, public lands offer something rare indeed: something most agree on.

A recent poll of the west’s intermountain states prove that love of public lands crosses party lines.

Westerners Just Wanna Have Fun
The poll revealed how deeply westerners value access to public lands and outdoor recreation. 82% wanted greater access to public lands for fishing, hunting, camping, hiking and other types of outdoor recreation. The support crossed party lines and was equally strong from people who lived in the suburbs, the cities, and small towns. By contrast, only 22% wanted more emphasis on job creating industries on public lands.

Habitat Rocks
But westerners don’t just care about whether they can get a campsite or ride their mountain bike. Both Republicans and Democrats rated “pollution of lakes, rivers, and streams” as of equal importance to employment. When asked which was more important: protecting clean water, air, and recreation or producing energy and jobs, Westerners went for water, air, and public lands by a factor of more than 3:1.

Clean Jobs
Jobs are also taking on a green tinge. When asked what kinds of jobs they wanted to bring to their state, the most popular answer was solar, wind, and renewable energy. Outdoor recreation was seen as a better source of jobs than oil and gas. 85% approve limiting oil and gas drilling and protecting environmentally sensitive places even in oil, coal and gas dependent Wyoming.

Zion Canyon National ParkWe Like Our Land Managers
When small towns struggle, the finger often gets pointed at the federal government which owns large portions of land that generates timber for local mills and rangeland for cows. But support for the agencies is strong. Approval rates for the Park Service, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service ranged between 76% and 82%. Only 25% disagreed with the work of the Bureau of Land Management, the least understood agency.

Keep It Public
When asked if public lands should be given to states, the answer was a resounding no. In Utah and Nevada, where new protections of Bear’s Ears and Gold Butte was “controversial,” the survey revealed that these National Monuments aren’t that controversial at all. Utahans and Nevadans support them by double-digit margins.

In February, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill to sell off more than 3 million acres of public lands to private interests. He was hit by an immediate backlash from across the political spectrum. Hunters, fishers, outdoor gear companies, hikers, and campers flooded his inbox and Instagram feed. He withdrew the bill a week later.

We All Agree
Chaffetz shouldn’t have been surprised; love of public lands is built into the culture of the West. We flock here for the wide-open spaces, not to make a fast buck. The people surveyed were more Republican than Democrat, more conservative than liberal or moderate. But the value of public lands and outdoor recreation rings out loudly across the board. When he started the National Park Service, Stephen Mather saw public lands as a meeting ground where Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life could enjoy their national heritage together on the trails and around the campfire. Here’s to that.