In a national survey we co-conducted entering the height of the political campaign season on behalf of the National Institute on Civil Discourse, fewer than one American voter in ten has “a great deal of confidence” in elected officials to solve the problems facing the country. Instead, voters described feeling “frustrated,” “worried,” and even “ashamed” when they think about their elected officials. This deep dissatisfaction is one of the few things that unites Democrats, Republicans and independents in this election season.
The bright spot amidst this gloom in voters’ characterization of how well government functions today? Americans see the nation’s public lands as emblematic of something government has gotten right. Three-quarters of the national electorate (77 percent) agrees that “One of the best things our government does best is to protect and preserve our national history and natural beauty through national parks, forests, and other public lands.” That sentiment holds true across the political spectrum and across the nation.
National research conducted on behalf of The Nature Conservancy this past summer, and a survey of Western voters conducted on behalf of Colorado College earlier this year demonstrates that voters perceive public lands as a job well done on several levels: a vital resource for their quality of life, while at the same time an engine for their local economy.
Fully 87 percent of American voters agree that their “state and national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas are an essential part of my state's quality of life.” A near-unanimous 96 percent of those we polled in six inner West states likewise agreed.
But voters don’t stop there. Seven-in-ten Americans and nine in ten Westerners agree that these public lands are “an essential part” of their state’s economy. Think about it: in six states with some of the highest proportions of land in public hands, voters were even more likely to view those lands as a valuable economic resource. The numbers quantify what voters tell us in Western focus groups: that public lands bring tourists, hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationalists to spend money in their communities; that their neighbors moved there for the clean air, trails, and trout fishing; that a growing company chose their town because they knew future workers would find the nearby natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities desirable too.
We have consistently seen that three-quarters of Americans believe we can “protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.” To hear some pundits and politicians describe it, voters must view their land, water and wildlife as either a source of jobs or as the foundation of a healthy environment – and never both. Yet these surveys demonstrate that Americans reject trying to pit the economy against the environment, just as much as they reject combative politics today. Amidst all their cynicism and negativity, voters across the political spectrum see public lands as a shining example of how government can get more things right.
Metz is a partner at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. Weigel is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies