A scientific survey of 2,400 residents of Colorado and five other Western states shows strong support to protect some "environmentally sensitive" public lands from gas and oil drilling, according to results released Thursday.
Colorado College, a renowned liberal-arts school in Colorado Springs, commissioned the survey to help "tell us who we are," according to Walt Hecox, an economist at the college and faculty director of the school's State of the Rockies Project. That ongoing project examines top issues facing the intermountain West.
Hecox said he consistently hears from elected officials and media professionals who profess to know what people of the mountain region "want," but he's never seen proof. So Colorado College worked with two opinion research firms to find answers. One firm works with Democrats, the other with Republicans.
One key result showed 56 percent of respondents believe that "some public lands should be drilled, while environmentally sensitive places should be permanently protected."
Another 25 percent said that "oil and gas drilling on public lands should be strictly limited." On the other end of the spectrum, 17 percent said that "public lands should generally be open to oil and gas drilling," according to presenters of the results, one from each opinion research firm.
The debate has been hitting close to Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. Gas companies have applied to drill in Thompson Divide, a vast area of mostly public lands that stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass, Carbondale, Redstone and the Crystal River.
In the survey, support for protecting some public lands crossed political lines. Sixty percent of Republicans want some lands permanently protected from drilling, while 25 percent want lands more accessible and 13 percent want strict limits.
Among Democrats, 54 percent want some limits, while 37 percent want strict limits, according to poll results. Six percent of Democrats want more public lands opened for the oil and gas industry.
Respondents who identified themselves as independents answered similarly to Republicans and Democrats.
Hecox said responses to numerous survey questions show that protecting national parks and forest lands is important to the vast majority of "Westerners."
"In the face of 'Drill, baby, drill' and 'Dig it,' the region is holding on to core values," Hecox said, referring to rally cries for drilling for more domestic gas and oil and mining for coal.
To drill down deep into the question of whether public lands should be protected from drilling, the survey asked respondents to identify with one of two statements. The first noted that 38 million acres of public lands are currently leased by oil and gas companies. It said strong standards should be put in place and drilling shouldn't be allowed in critical locations near recreational areas, water sources and wildlife. Fifty-nine percent of respondents identified with that sentiment.
The counterstatement said bureaucratic red tape, burdensome federal regulations and government policies have blocked access to federal lands and prevented the West from reaching its full energy and jobs potential. It said that more public lands should be opened to responsible energy development. That sentiment was favored by 35 percent of respondents.
Registered voters of Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming as well as Colorado were surveyed.
Colorado residents were among those mostly strongly calling for protections of public lands.
"Even in the most conservative states, more agree with a statement advocating stronger standards for energy development on public lands," said a slide presentation on the results.
In Colorado, 62 percent of residents called for stronger standards on energy development, while 33 percent said they were not needed. In New Mexico, the split was 62 to 31 percent.
But residents of Utah and Wyoming, generally seen as more conservative, also favored stronger standards. The split was 51 to 43 percent in Utah and 49 to 43 percent in Wyoming, according to the results.
The survey was called "Conservation in the West." It was conducted in January.
On other conservation issues, 80 percent of Western voters said public lands such as national parks and national forests support their state through opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors. Only 15 percent disagreed, saying that public lands take property off the tax rolls and prevent opportunities such as logging and gas production, which would produce revenues and jobs.
Vast majorities in each state said they would oppose efforts in Congress to sell off some public lands as a way to reduce the federal deficit.
The full survey and results can be seen at Colorado College's website at www.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest.