The armed militia that’s entering its second week occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon might be in favor of states taking over ownership of public lands, but Westerners as a whole aren’t, according to a new poll.
The poll, released Monday by Colorado College, surveyed voters in seven western states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming) on their views regarding public lands and energy. It found that most western voters — 58 percent — don’t want states to take over management of public lands. That’s one of the main desires of Ammon Bundy and the rest of the group that’s occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge — to turn federally protected lands over to private and state ownership, which the group thinks would help open up these lands to more drilling, mining, and grazing.
“These findings show us that the Bundy family…are far out of touch with most folks living in the West,” former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said on a press call Monday. “Anyone who tells us to hand public lands over to private owners and the state are telling us a story that won’t stand the test of time.”
What residents in the West are concerned about, Salazar said, are things like drought — a strong majority of voters in all seven western states considered drought a “serious” problem, according to the poll. The poll found that western voters were also concerned about lack of funding to maintain public lands, as well as climate change and wildfires.
The poll found that 60 percent of voters opposed selling off public lands as a way to reduce the budget deficit. This tactic has been embraced by some members of Congress — last March, the Senate approved an amendment to the nonbinding budget resolution that would support state efforts to sell off public lands. Seizing and selling off America’s federally-owned lands is strongly opposed by some western lawmakers, and previous polling has also found that western voters are opposed to the tactic.
“Westerners want our public lands to stay public,” Salazar said. Public lands — including national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges — are a huge reason why people visit the West, he said. Seventy-two percent of voters polled said they thought that public lands helped the western economy, and 80 percent said they would support future presidents creating new national monuments.
“Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region,” Eric Perramond, professor at Colorado College, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, experts have said that if the armed militia does get their demands met, it would be bad news for the western environment. Cattle grazing has already endangered key western species, and more private ownership of western lands would likely mean more development- and ranching-centric land use.
“If you’ve driven through the high desert of eastern Oregon, the distinction between private and federal [land] is often strikingly clear,” Dale Goble, a professor and land-use expert at the University of Idaho’s College of Law, told the Guardian. If the lands were taken over by private entities, “the marshes and everything that attracts the migratory bird species — probably, my guess would be, used for irrigation”.