Today, the Center for Western Priorities released its 2018 Winning the West Poll on public lands and the upcoming election. Contrary to what some outside the American West may think, most voters here do not want America’s public lands privatized en masse. And not only that, but they’re increasingly concerned by the Trump administration’s approach to public lands, which has generally been to open more areas to fossil fuel extraction and revoke protections for several national monuments.
Might there be a disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to Nevadans’ relationship with their public lands? Let’s dig into the numbers to see for ourselves.
Surprise, Nevadans like public lands. “Drill, baby, drill”? Not so much.
At first glance, the toplines of Gottlieb Strategic Research’s poll of several western states (commissioned by the Center for Western Priorities) is mostly what one would expect, particularly here in Nevada. President Donald Trump’s approval rating here is underwater at 42-53%, most voters think the nation is heading on the wrong track (55-42%), and slightly more Nevada voters self-identify as Democrats than Republicans (47-42% with Nonpartisan leaners included). And even though the poll did not name Senator Dean Heller (R) or Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), the 49-44% statewide lead for “Generic Democrat” over “Generic Republican” aligns with recent polls mostly showing Rosen holding a slight lead over Heller in the U.S. Senate race.
But when we drill down to see Nevadans’ views on public lands and environmental protection, the numbers get more interesting. Despite an extended campaign by the Bundy family and their supporters to delegitimize federal authority over public lands, 70% of Nevadans oppose Trump’s push to weaken protections for several national monuments, with 52% strongly opposing and 22% either strongly or somewhat in support. Nevada’s own Gold Butte and Basin and Range National Monuments are among the lands included in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s monuments review. Basin and Range seems to have been spared by Trump and Zinke, but it remains to be determined how they intend to shrink the acreage of Gold Butte.
And that’s not the only issue Nevadans take with Trump’s environmental policies. Nevadans oppose 65-30% Trump’s plan to open more land to oil and gas development by reducing protections for endangered wildlife (such as the sage grouse). Instead, Nevadans support prohibiting fossil fuel extraction from public lands to combat climate change (a key demand of the “Keep It in the Ground” movement) by a 55-36% spread. Even when the framing is changed to “increasing oil and gas drilling on public lands to access America’s vast energy resources”, Nevadans still oppose by a 52-41% spread.
“It’s a balanced approach to conversation and public lands that wins the day.”
– Brian Gottlieb, Gottlieb Streategic Research
So if Nevadans, and westerners in general, don’t agree with Trump or the Bundys on public lands, climate change, and the environment, then why do we still see so much chatter in Washington about “westerners wanting big government off their lands”? According to pollster Brian Gottlieb, far too many politicians and national media pundits have accepted the framing of the debate on public lands as one of “rogue ranchers” versus “radical treehuggers”, rather than seeing how most westerners aren’t really part of either extreme. As Gottlieb reframed it during the Center for Western Priorities’ conference call with reporters, “It’s a balanced approach to conversation and public lands that wins the day.”
Gottlieb continued explaining the poll results, and how the results differ from preconceived notions of Nevadans’ hostility to public lands protection: “Those perceptions that the west is made up of a bunch of extremists […] is incorrect. Many western voters are persuadable, willing to listen to candidates.” He continued, “They’re proud of where they live. They’re willing to vote to defend the outdoors. […] They believe [public access to] the outdoors is very important.”
Indeed, according to this poll Nevada voters are motivated to vote to protect public lands when they are threatened, and to vote for candidates who align closest to their views on public lands, by a 66-27% spread. And considering Senator Dean Heller‘s and Gubernatorial hopeful Adam Laxalt’s (R) well documented opposition to public lands protection, they may have an additional reason for concern.