Public Land and Presidential Politics

Your Public Lands and Politics

The Outdoor Industry Association recently released a poll they had commissioned.  The poll asked 500 likely voters in Colorado and 500 likely voters in Nevada a series of questions.  The questions were designed  to try to determine how important public lands are to people in those states and how this interest might play out in the presidential elections.

Are public lands important?

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountin National Park
By Daniel Mayer (Mav) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

When asked: “Compared to other issues like the economy, health care and education, how important are issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife for you in deciding whether to support an elected public official?”  these potential voters strongly believe these issues are important.  87% of the group from Colorado and 77% from Nevada said these issues were very or somewhat important.  Clearly these people care about these issues, but the direction of that caring is still open.  Do they want to sell off public lands or acquire more public lands?  If you think the issue is important, you could be in either camp.

Why are public Lands important?

The poll then tried to ascertain the leanings of the participants by asking a series of questions about the importance and priorities of National Forests, National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, and other national public lands.  The poll found:

  • Strong support for protecting and conserving them for future generations (98% Colorado) (97% Nevada)
  • Strong support for ensuring access for recreational activities such as hiking, biking, hunting and fishing (96% Colorado) (92% Nevada)
  • Pretty strong support for making them available for livestock grazing (66% Colorado) (75% Nevada)
  • Pretty strong support for making sure resources such as oil and gas, minerals or timber are available for development, mining and logging (59% Colorado) (71% Nevada)
Stella Lake in the Great Basin National Park

Stella Lake in the Great Basin National Park

I read this as saying that the people really want it all from their public lands.  Not only do they want these lands protected, they want them used.  Outdoor recreation is important, but so are extractive uses.  Ultimately the question is: Can the public get everything they want from the public lands?

It seems to me that these results suggest that if these lands are protected and available for recreational pursuits, the more extractive activities should also be pursued.   That may seem impossible, especially with interest groups screaming that their way is the only way, but it really isn’t completely impossible.

Get It All (Or a Lot) From Public Lands

Some lands may be better for one or the other activity.  For example the National Parks are managed to protect and conserve the resources for future generations while also allowing a wide variety of recreational pursuits.  Since they are not mandated to be managed for resource extraction, the conflicts are not a huge as on other public lands.  Sometimes a recreational opportunity is sacrificed for preservation or vice versa, but that can work out ok.  That’s not to say that controversy is avoided as there are always people that are strongly at one end or the other of the issue.

Arapaho National Forest

Crooked Creek Road
Sulphur Ranger District
Arapaho National Forest

Some lands,  like the National Forests, are mandated to be managed for both extractive and non-extractive activities.  Sometimes extractive and non-extractive activities can co-exist, but, for the most part, efforts are made to separate these activities by time and space.  Thus, for example, you won’t see timber harvest in Wilderness Areas.  In part, that’s because Wilderness Areas are generally located in rugged country (i.e. wilderness) that is not economical to manage for timber harvest.  You will sometimes see mining activities under National Forest Wilderness Areas as managers try to balance resource use in accordance with the Wilderness Act and the mining laws at the same time.

In trying to balance uses on the National Forests, a process with which I am intimately familiar, the most common situation is that both ends of the extractive/non-extractive spectrum give up something.  That makes no one happy, not those that want extraction, not those that want non-extractive uses and not those that want it all.  In fact, we used to assess how close we were to a proper balance by finding that no one was happy with the proposed balance.  Not a great place for a land manager to be, but real nonetheless.  Typically,  people don’t get it all, but they get a lot.

Playing Politics

When the poll asked how people felt about Congress giving control of the national public lands to the states, people were generally opposed (64% Colorado) (58% Nevada), but not as definitively as the desire to protect those lands and have it all.

From the politics of a presidential election, my take is that raising the issue of giving federal lands to the states is not likely to happen except in the primaries where candidates are trying to assemble votes from various interest groups in an effort to come out ahead of their opponents on a state-by-state basis.  In the general election however,  it’s a bad gamble to bring up such an issue given the numbers seen in this poll.  That’s why, if we see a party put forth a candidate that pushed this agenda in the primaries, we would likely see some quick backtracking in the general election campaign.


You can find all the details about this poll at the Outdoor Industry Association website.  Check it out then let me know what you think are the major take-aways.

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