Western politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore public land issues at their own peril, said Amy Kleiner Roberts.
Roberts was a key campaign staffer for former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt in the Republican’s 1994 race for governor. Now executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, she spent four days in January at the Colorado Convention Center for the Outdoor Retailer & Snow Show – relocated from Utah for the first time in 20 years.
Colorado College has sponsored its Conservation in the West poll for eight years. It used the show to release its latest version, which for the first time includes Idaho.
The results: 84 percent of the 400 Idahoans surveyed see themselves as outdoor enthusiasts, compared with 74 percent of the 3,200 people polled across eight states. Seventy-six percent of Westerners viewed themselves as conservationists, a 13 percent jump from the poll’s findings in 2017; Idaho was similar.
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“I think the poll shows the issues of public lands and outdoor recreation are going to be on voters’ minds in the midterm elections,” Roberts told the Statesman.
They’re already on her organization’s mind. The Outdoor Retailer show left Utah after leaders there refused to back off two issues: their call to transfer federal public lands to the state and their opposition to Bears Ears National Monument. Utah’s strident positions, followed by President Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, have left the outdoor industry feeling justified in its decision to protest through economic power.
And many downtown Salt Lake businesses paid the price. Outdoor Retailer brought 29,000 people to Denver last month. It packed 7,500 retail buyers from 60 countries and more than 1,000 brands into that convention center, the largest event it has ever hosted.
After two more shows this year, the group’s 2018 economic impact on Colorado is expected to be more than $110 million, Roberts said.
The poll shows that Utah residents remain divided over the reduction of the national monuments. But a majority of those polled in the rest of the West, including very conservative Idaho, opposed the cuts.
Sixty-three percent of Idahoans polled opposed monument reduction, in a state where Republican Rep. Mike Simpson got Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to keep his hands off Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
Of the 400 Idahoans, 49 percent identified themselves as Republicans, 15 percent as Democrats and 36 percent as independents. Forty-four percent said they were conservative, 31 percent moderate and 20 percent liberal. Sixty-two percent said they came from a small town or a rural area.
The poll’s margin of error is 2.65 percent for its regionwide findings, and 4.9 percent for each state. Research firms Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates interviewed both landline and cellphone users in December and January, and statistically weighted the numbers to reflect population geographics.
The fact that Idahoans love their public lands should not be a surprise. That’s why most of us live here.
Idahoans joined regional majorities in their desire to keep current sage grouse management plans, and in favoring protecting public land rather than opening it to energy production.
“What’s interesting about this data is that Idaho is a fairly conservative state politically, but when it comes to conservation issues, it’s very much aligned with the rest of the West,” said Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies.
More Idahoans (54 percent) and Westerners overall (49 percent) approved of how President Donald Trump has handled the economy.
But when it comes to Trump protecting land, water and wildlife, Idahoans were divided, at 46 percent to 46 percent. Regionally, 52 percent of Westerners disapproved of the administration’s approach, compared to 38 percent who approved. Republicans and Democrats were predictably divided on partisan lines.
The poll also suggests where state elected officials face the biggest threat.
Overall, people polled were mixed on whether their elected officials reflect their values. But in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, a majority said their elected officials don’t reflect their views. With most respondents seeing the value of public lands to their economy, that’s a red flag.
In Idaho, 53 percent polled said their officials shared their values, compared to 45 percent who felt otherwise.
“Contrast (U.S. Reps.) Raul Labrador with Mike Simpson,” Roberts said. Labrador has shown some support for state management of federal lands; Simpson flatly opposes transfers.
Even supporters of transferring public lands to the state don’t want to sell them off in Idaho. I’ve had many lawmakers who back that position tell me they don’t want to sell off those lands because they know how much access means to Idahoans – especially sportsmen, who at 28 percent led the percentage of people who said they had visited public lands more than 20 times.
Ryan Callaghan is public relations and conservation director for First Lite, a hunting clothing company from Ketchum that was at the show. He pointed to the high rural response to the poll as a reason for such high support on lands issues.
“That’s all the recreational activity there is in a lot of communities,” Callaghan said.
The show demonstrated the growing recognition of the economic and political power of the outdoor industry and public land. One sign was the number of political leaders who came, such as Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead.
“I think it was significant that the Republicans and Democrats came together and toured the show,” Roberts said.
This report has been updated to clarify Rep. Mike Simpson’s stance on states overseeing federal land.