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More voters than ever — regardless of political affiliation — are worried about land and water conservation in the West

And they’re down with making Dolores River Canyon Country a national monument
Boaters float past through a sandstone canyon along the Dolores River on Apr. 23, 2023, near Bedrock. Several sections of the upper and lower Dolores River Canyon are 1,100-feet deep with exposed layers of sedimentary rock dating nearly 300 million years. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Support for public lands and natural resource conservation in the West tends to eclipse political affiliation, with a steadily growing number of Colorado voters supporting increased federal protections, especially as climate change threatens landscapes.

The annual Center for Western Priorities “Winning the West” poll of 1,807 voters in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada show increasing support for conservation even as political affiliation fades.

In Colorado, 32% of respondents told survey takers they were conservative. And 29% said they were liberal. The proportion of respondents who identified as members of the Democratic or Republican party was evenly split at 27% each. The largest section of respondents, 46%, said they were independent.

And they overwhelmingly support creating a national monument around the Dolores River in southwest Colorado.

Last year 72% of Colorado survey respondents said they would support the president using executive authority to designate a national monument. This year, 84% of the 600 Colorado voters who were surveyed by the Benenson Strategy Group said they would support President Joe Biden creating a new national monument around the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado. About 16% oppose the Dolores River Canyon Country national monument proposal.

Similarly in Arizona, 79% of respondents supported the designation of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, which Biden did last week, increasing protection for nearly 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park.

In Nevada, 77% of respondents support Biden creating the Bahsahwahbee National Monument.

“Support for monuments in the abstract is strong but support for specific monuments in each state is through the roof because folks in each state know the lands and they know what should be protected,” said Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities, which has sponsored the annual poll since 2016. “I think monuments are where you really see bipartisanship come through. In Colorado, protecting a place like the Dolores River is not a Democrat or a Republican issue. It’s a Colorado issue.”

The support for a Dolores River national monument spanning as many as 500,000 acres jibes with a Western Slope survey this year that showed 68% of voters in five counties along the river favoring the creation of a national monument.

This spring’s bountiful snowpack in the Dolores River Basin drew record traffic to the remote river corridor, offering visitors rare glimpses of the region’s Indigenous sites and desert geology. The surge in river users also revealed the “fragmented management, inadequate conservation protections, the potential for new mining and unplanned recreational growth” that threaten the river, said Scott Braden, the director of the Colorado Wildlands Project that is spearheading the monument push.

“That’s why we’re proposing a national monument, because President Biden has the power to make sure these lands are preserved forever in a way that protects the values, allows for sustainable recreation and honors the legacy of both tribes and local communities of the Dolores,” said Braden, whose monument plan accelerates proposed legislation that would increase protection for about 53,000 acres around the Lower Dolores River. “While we appreciate the legislative efforts to protect a portion of this landscape, we need a solution that matches the scale and splendor of the Dolores River canyon country. We believe a national monument is the right tool to get this done and deliver on this strong public support.”

Support for the BLM’s Public Lands Rule

The responses to this year’s survey showed an increasingly purple Colorado. About 32% of respondents told survey takers they were conservative or somewhat conservative. And 29% said they were liberal and somewhat liberal. The proportion of respondents who identified as members of the Democratic or Republican party was evenly split at 27% each. The largest section of respondents, 46%, said they were independent.

The survey showed the outdoors and public lands as increasingly important to Colorado voters, with 64% of the poll respondents saying public lands and wildlife issues were “much more” or “somewhat more” important than in previous years. Colorado voters also responded that the federal government should be doing more at protecting lands and access as well as better managing crowding at parks and oil and gas operations on public lands.

There’s also a growing concern over the impacts of climate change in Colorado. Last year 75% of survey respondents agreed “we’ve reached a moment where climate change is affecting our daily lives in the West as never before.” This year, 82% of Colorado respondents said they were concerned about effects of a changing climate.

The poll results from the Center for Western Priorities align with the annual eight-state Conservation in the West survey by Colorado College, which, since 2011, has tracked increasing concern among Colorado voters over water shortages, overwhelming support for protecting land and water and growing calls for increased regulation of oil and gas companies operating on public lands.

The Center for Western Priorities this week launched a “six-figure” television ad campaign in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., to urge Biden and outdoors-loving conservation voters to support more new national monuments.

“The Winning the West project demonstrates time and again that conservation is both a winning and a unifying issue in the West,” said the center’s executive director, Jennifer Rokala, in a statement announcing the “More Monuments” campaign. “We hope President Biden will take this opportunity to inspire millions by continuing to safeguard our cherished landscapes for generations to come.”

This year 82% of surveyed Colorado voters viewed the BLM as very or somewhat favorable, versus 78% in 2022. This year 95% of the Colorado voters said they viewed the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service favorably, versus 88% and 85%, respectively, last year.

About 70% of Colorado voters polled this year said they either strongly or somewhat support the BLM’s proposed new rule that would allow regional land managers to give land restoration and conservation equal weight to extractive uses like mining, drilling and grazing. About 30% of the surveyed Colorado voters opposed the Public Lands Rule.

When asked if they see the BLM’s Public Lands Rule as protecting “the Western way of life,” safeguarding watersheds and ensuring the land will be used for generations for recreation, hunting and fishing, 64% of the surveyed respondents agreed. When asked if the BLM rule would hinder essential economic activities like grazing and energy development and “block access to our nation’s abundant energy reserves,” 36% of respondents agreed.

This year 54% of Colorado voters said they viewed oil and gas companies favorably, versus 42% in 2022. The percentage of state voters who said they viewed coal companies favorably this year was 53%, compared with 34% in 2022. The survey showed 88% of Colorado voters seeing renewable energy companies as favorable, up from 71% in 2022.

Colorado voters also were asked about proposals to update the 1872 General Mining Act “to strengthen environmental safeguards” and force mining companies to pay royalties for work on public lands. The poll showed 84% of surveyed Colorado voters supporting a modernization of the venerable law.

One of the smaller gaps between respondents involved a question about energy development on public lands. About 63% of respondents — nearly the same total percentage of voters who said they were independent or Democrats — agreed with a statement about prioritizing wind and solar energy on public lands to meet energy needs “without dangerous boom and bust energy sources.”

About 37% of Colorado survey respondents — mostly all Republicans — said the country should use “all available options to make energy prices affordable” and reduce reliance on foreign oil even if that means increasing energy exploration on public lands.

Politicians pursuing the popular “all of the above” policy on domestic energy production — which elevates oil and gas exploration alongside development of renewable energy sources — should heed the results of the polling, Weiss said.

“A bulk of the electorate wants to prioritize renewable energy and stop the boom and bust cycle of oil and gas,” he said.

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