A majority of likely voters in Wyoming said conservation issues were very important when it comes to deciding whether to support a public official, according to a new poll organized by the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources.
The poll of 600 likely voters was commissioned by the institute in partnership with a number of organizations, and it was conducted in October. The 2018 poll mirrors similar polls conducted in 2004, 2007 and 2014.
Fifty-five percent of voters said issues involving public lands, waters and wildlife were a primary factor in their decision to support a public official. Another 36 percent said conservation issues were important, meaning conservation resonates with 91 percent of likely voters across party lines, when compared to issues such as the economy, health care and education.
“Even though I think the economic situation for Wyoming is still strained, there is still a ton of conservation concern,” said Nicole Korfanta, director of the Ruckelshaus Institute.
When looking at specific conservation issues, respondents expressed the most concern about the availability of water for ranching and farming, loss of family farms and ranches, pollution of bodies of water, low water levels, declining numbers of big game animals and habitat loss.
Korfanta said she was surprised to see an increase in concern since 2014, the last time the poll was conducted. For example, concern about pollution of rivers, lakes and streams increased by 23 percent, with 41 percent of respondents this year saying the issue was extremely or very serious.
“That seems to be a special concern among Wyoming voters,” Korfanta said.
Respondents were less concerned overall about some of the impacts of development on rural character. Issues such as preserving open space, preserving a Western way of life, protecting the character of small towns and preserving historic trails and ranches were less important to respondents in 2018 than they were in 2007, 2014 or sometimes both.
Korfanta said she wasn’t sure if the shift was an anomaly or suggestive of a trend, but she speculated that perhaps changing statewide demographics could be playing a part.
“It could have to do with the slight but steady urbanization of Wyoming,” she said.
The poll also asked respondents whether they would support spending state money to protect natural resources, in particular through the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust. The trust was created in 2005 by the Wyoming Legislature with the mission of allocating money to habitat projects around the state, usually with matching funds in support.
Since 2005, the trust has funded about 90 projects a year through interest earned on a permanent account of about $105 million.
“It is one of the primary funding mechanisms in the state of Wyoming for conservation of open spaces and wildlife, so that really is a key way that Wyomingites would pay,” Korfanta said. “Whether or not Wyomingites support it is really reflective of their willingness to pay.”
Sixty-three percent of poll respondents favored building the trust up to $200 million, which would be considered full funding. Such support was consistent across party lines, in all areas of the state and among urban and rural residents. Most respondents said they would support a tax increase to fund conservation.
Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, said his office received $9.5 million in project requests this fall, and the trust will be able fund about $3 million in projects. The trust funds projects that preserve open space and improve or preserve wildlife habitat.
“These were incredible projects, and it puts us in a real bind because each time we can’t fund them, then we’re looking down the road and trying to figure out what we can do,” he said.
In Albany County, the fund helped pay for the Laramie River Restoration Project, which was completed in 2011 by the Laramie Rivers Conservation District. The project stabilized the river’s banks where it passes through town through the installation of root wads, shoring up the banks with rock and planting vegetation.
As a result, erosion has slowed, flooding has decreased and fish habitat has improved.
“It’s a good example where doing something proactively allows a community to take a sigh of relief because the river is functioning the way that it should through town,” Budd said.
Budd said many projects appeal to a variety of stakeholders and leverage a variety of funding sources. Even with full funding, he said, the trust couldn’t fund every proposed habitat project in the state.
“It’s gratifying that people in the state realize what work is being done and understand the importance of that work,” he said.
Most survey respondents opposed a state takeover of the management of public lands, which Korfanta said was included in the poll for the first time because of its timeliness.
“It’s interesting to know how the majority would vote on issues like that,” she said.
The poll included questions about wind energy, and Korfanta said the results would contribute to ongoing research on the issue. Respondents felt positively about wind energy’s contributions to the economy but negatively about its influence on wildlife, views and recreation access.
“Wyomingites have a pretty nuanced view of wind, including the benefits and the downsides of our wind energy development,” she said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most survey respondents reported participating in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. In almost every category, their participation rates exceeded national rates.
“People are connected to the lands here, and I think that probably accounts for a lot of how much people care,” Korfanta said.
The Ruckelshaus Institute, a division of the UW Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, works toward the understanding and resolution of complex natural resource challenges, especially through collaborative decision-making.
Partners in the poll included the Wyoming Conservation Legacy, The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.