We all know that energy and land issues can be contentious – both inside and outside of the Beltway. But there may be glimmers of hope amidst the partisan discord. In twenty years of polling on public policy, last month was the first time we presented survey data to staffers from both sides of the aisle in the same meeting. The fact that this was our first ever bipartisan meeting surprised even the people in the room, but would be even more shocking to the voters we speak with every day. 

That’s because most voters – particularly voters in the western United States - generally agree on priorities for public lands, uses of those lands, and policies that govern them.  


Voters’ agreement on policies appears to be grounded in the very reasons why they tell us that they chose to live or stay in the west. In a recent bipartisan survey conducted on behalf of Colorado College we found that voters ranked clean air and clean water, a healthy outdoor lifestyle, and proximity to public lands above 14 other factors – including economic factors – as the top reasons they choose to live in the West.

And most decision-makers recognize this fact. When Colorado Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed MORE (R) gave his first speech to the Senate in March, he led with descriptions of Colorado’s great outdoors, emphasizing them as the defining characteristics of the state which drive Coloradans to be better stewards of their public lands.   

Similarly, in a recent speech about energy development on our nation’s public lands, Secretary of the Interior Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone Blind focus on ‘energy dominance’ may cripple Endangered Species Act MORE spoke to an overarching mission to leave our children an environment that is better off than the one we inherited. Secretary Jewell cited the old adage, “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

It is no coincidence that these two Westerners speak in similar terms about our natural resources and what they mean to folks in the West. 

So what do voters in the West see as the top priorities for public lands? More than 95 percent of those polled -- Republicans, Democrats and independents alike -- see protection and conservation of public lands for future generations a top priority, followed by wildlife protection, and ensuring access to recreation. 

A strong majority of Westerners also see energy development and grazing as important priorities, but rate those commercial activities in a decidedly lower tier. When we asked Western voters last year about oil and gas drilling on public lands, a majority chose a decidedly middle ground that “some public lands should be drilled, while environmentally sensitive places should be permanently protected.”

This desire for balance extends to other land use policies, such as sage grouse conservation.  Sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that has habitat on millions of acres of public and private land across the west, has been declining in population for decades. Multiple state and federal agencies are working on plans to conserve them. We asked voters if they would support plans from the Bureau of Land Management that may restrict certain higher-impact activities in the bird’s habitat, such as energy development or off-road vehicle use, in an effort to protect the sage grouse’s declining population. A strong majority said they would support such an approach- with 69 percent in support and 24 percent opposition.

And the policy that saw the strongest opposition? Selling off public lands like national forests to reduce the budget deficit - only 17 percent of Western voters support those proposals. As both Gardner and Jewell talked about in their speeches, and as our poll confirms, Westerners value public lands and do not want to see them auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Elected officials often hear from vocal, strong proponents on either side of an issue and assume that every issue is divisive. But this data confirms that issues related to public lands are decidedly not. This perspective should help compel decision-makers in Washington to sit down and consider these policies with those across the aisle, so our recent briefing is not such an unprecedented event.      

Metz is a partner at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.  Weigel is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies.