Analysis: How Public Lands Issues Influenced The 2012 Elections

By Jessica Goad, Christy Goldfuss, and Tom Kenworthy

In an election where public lands played a surprisingly prominent role, last night’s results were a decisive show of support for protecting lands and the leaders that champion their value.

Public lands issues surfaced in a number of key races and referenda, particularly in the West. In some respects, this election can be seen as an endorsement of the very philosophy behind our 700 million acres of public lands — that they are open to and managed for all of us, not just the wealthy few.  Here’s how the subject played out in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, and across the U.S.


Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama had vast differences in their perspectives on public lands issues. Romney’s plan to turn decisions about energy development on public lands over to the states brought significant criticism, and was a major topic of debate on lands issues.  Various constituencies came out against the proposal, including sportsmen (one columnist noted that “fewer proposals could be more frightening” for hunters and anglers) and the industry itself (the International Association of Drilling Contractors said the plan would cause operators to “tear their hair out.”)

And as this online video highlights, Romney botched a response to a question about why public lands exist, telling told the Reno Gazette-Journal in February that he doesn’t know “what [their] purpose is”:


It is perhaps no surprise that in Arizona, the Grand Canyon was the central public lands issue in the election.  Proposition 120, a ballot measure that would give Arizona “sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction” the land, air, water, and wildlife within its boundaries, was resoundingly defeated by a 2-1 margin.   This measure — the embodiment of a radical push for state’s rights that materialized with the Tea Party — would have included turning the Grand Canyon over to the state.

Additionally, public lands rose to the surface in the Arizona Senate race, which pitted Representative Jeff Flake (R) against Richard Carmona (D).  Flake — a former uranium industry lobbyist — prioritized mining around the Grand Canyon during his time as a representative, and even as late as October was pushing for the development of these “prime mining lands.”  In response, the League of Conservation Voters and Majority PAC dropped $1.3 million in television ads against Flake, focusing exclusively on his work to undermine protections for the Grand Canyon.

Watch one of them:

Even so, Flake won last night, in part bolstered by his staunch fiscal conservatism.  It remains to be seen if and how Flake continues to push his radical public lands agenda forward in the Senate.


The race between Senator Jon Tester (D) and Representative Dennis Rehberg (R) was one of the tightest in the nation, and was not called for Tester until this morning.  To some extent, this race was a referendum on public lands because Rehberg has been one of the most aggressive opponents of conservation in the House of Representatives.He has supported bills to keep the president from establishing national monuments and give the Department of Homeland Security operational control over public lands along the border.

But public lands appeared in this race mostly because of sportsmen’s issues.  The Flathead Beacon ran an entire story describing how the candidates were “vying” for the hunting and angling vote.  As late as last week the group Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund posted an ad to its YouTube account accusing Rehberg of a “land grab.” Watch it:

New Mexico

Representative Martin Heinrich (D) won a U.S. Senate seat last night, defeating former Representative Heather Wilson (R) by a wide margin.  Both renewable energy and land conservation issues played a role in the race, with Heinrich and environmental groups attacking Wilson as being in the pocket of Big Oil.

In New Mexico, as in Montana, hunting and angling were the prominent public lands  issues. Heinrich’s introduction of a bill improving sportsmen access to public lands in July prompted the Associated Press to assert that it “stirred up” the Senate race.  A Wilson spokesperson quickly criticized groups that endorsed the bill as “environmental extremists” with a “job-killing agenda.” And, in its profile of the two candidates, the Taos News assessed their stances on “tourism and public lands” as its very first issue.

As one D.C. environmentalist tweeted last night, “Heinrich is now the leading public lands champ in the Senate.”

While public lands did win out last night, there is still much work to be done and many threats are on the horizon.  Energy and Environment Daily noted that “The House Natural Resources Committee next Congress is expected to continue its no-holds-barred approach to energy development on public lands and waters.”

Utah Republican Governor Gary Herbert will likely continue to pursue a lawsuit demanding that the U.S. turn Utah public lands over to the states.  And a handful of state legislatures could pursue American Legislative Exchange Council-backed legislation turning public lands over to the states.  No matter what threats arise, it is clear that Americans pay attention and vote to support the public lands they find incredibly important.

Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach, Christy is the Director, and Tom Kenworthy is the Senior Fellow for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

2 Responses to Analysis: How Public Lands Issues Influenced The 2012 Elections

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It does, happily, look like the hard Right simply went too far this time. Hope springs eternal.

  2. Frank Zaski says:

    A point regarding the long term use of our PRB public land being mined, the water table is completely removed. Forget about drilling water wells there for probably 10,000 years or more.