National Parks Campgrounds

According to the Winning the West poll, 59% of Arizona voters are strongly opposed to the possibility of removing restrictions on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Westerners remain passionate about the landscapes and lifestyles that make the Rocky Mountain West a special place to live.

Our Winning the West poll — conducted in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada — found that issues involving public lands, parks and wildlife play an outsized role in influencing how voters choose which candidates they support. The intensity of these views have only solidified over the past three election cycles we conducted the poll, particularly with a group of voters in the ideological middle who regularly participate in outdoor recreation. You could call this growing number of critical swing voters the West’s “outdoor voting bloc.” And they may play an outsized role in deciding the winners of close elections in 2020, including Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat and a number of competitive U.S. House districts.

So, what does the outdoor voting bloc want?

They are eager to see a proactive agenda to expand and protect national public lands. Overwhelming majorities — in the 70% and 80% range in Arizona — support proposals to ensure public lands are protected, funded and used responsibly. Those initiatives include things like spending more on public land access and maintenance needs, fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and reinvesting energy development royalties back into public lands. Majority support for a conservationist agenda on public lands held true whether the poll respondents were Democrats, Republicans or independent voters. Similarly, nearly 6 out of 10 Arizona voters say the U.S. needs to protect new deserving lands as future parks or national monuments.

Western voters consistently say the current administration’s record on public lands is antithetical to the outdoor way of life here. There is majority opposition to opening up new public lands to oil and gas development, rolling back environmental and safety regulations on energy development and curbing regulations designed to reduce natural gas leaks. Majorities in both parties, as well as independents, oppose reducing the size of national monuments. And by a huge 59% to 29% margin, Arizona voters are strongly opposed to the possibility of removing restrictions on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

When asked about energy policies, voters favor proposals to limit the impacts of energy development on public lands. Requiring mining companies to pay taxpayers royalties for mineral extraction on public lands; increasing royalties for oil, gas, and coal extraction; and insisting energy companies detect and repair leaks in drilling equipment were popular ideas with voters across the ideological spectrum.

Western voters seek balance. For example, 53% of voters in the West say oil and gas production should be allowed with strict limitations and regulations to ensure that land, wildlife, water and public safety are protected first and foremost. More extreme positions are far less popular. Only 11% say oil and gas development should be expanded on public lands to help the U.S. become energy independent as soon as possible. On the other end of the ideological divide, 18% of voters agree oil and gas should be kept in the ground on public lands and companies should be prohibited from drilling on public lands.

In 2016 and 2018 we saw several close races in Arizona and across the Mountain West go toward the candidate whose respect for public lands and the outdoors came through consistently in their rhetoric and record. We will be watching this year to see if even more elections turn on the public lands issues that are so central in the hearts and minds of Western voters.

Aaron Weiss is a Tucson native and deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based policy and advocacy group focused on public lands and energy in the Mountain West.