It’s not just a stereotype, outdoor enthusiasts make up 70 percent of the Mountain West

The outdoor industry has a superpower. Recent elections show an emerging voter block that crosses the partisan divide and cares deeply about protecting the environment.

Seven in ten people in the Mountain West refer to themselves as “outdoor enthusiasts” according to the State of the Rockies poll released Thursday. While the term can mean anything to anyone, it shows that public land issues in western states aren’t just political, they’re personal.  

“In at least 22 races across the West, public land issues were front and center in the 2018 midterms,” said Jennifer Rokala with the Center for Western Priorities who spoke on a panel at Outdoor Retailer, the industry trade show held in Denver, where the poll was released. “Politicians in those races had to be in favor of protecting public lands in order to win.” 

The State of the Rockies poll, which surveyed voters in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah revealed that 53 percent of Republicans would support an increase in taxes to fund public land issues. This after a 35 day government shutdown lost the National Park Service an estimated $400,000 each day from loss of entrance fee revenue. 

On January 25, Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse announced they were introducing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, an effort to protect Colorado’s public lands. In addition to establishing new wilderness areas and strengthening recreation opportunities, the bill includes prohibition of new oil and gas development in areas marked important by ranchers and sportsmen. 

After a high profile and catastrophic wildfire season, it’s no surprise that 84% of those who support a tax increase said the top priority for funding should be forest management to mitigate wildfires. 67% percent of voters overall believe wildfires are more of a problem than ten years ago, which is true. The most destructive and most deadly fire in California history last November killed 88 people and charred over 150,000 acres. 

In a predictable partisan twist, while voters come to the same conclusion that we need to take action, the reasoning differs along party lines according to the poll. The majority of Democrats believe the fires are worse due to climate change, while the majority of Republicans see it as a maintenance issue dealing with insufficient thinning and clearing of underbrush. 

While wildfires are seen as a top priority for funding, water issues topped the list seen as the most serious problem to deal with. The poll reveals that two-thirds of voters see the Western water supply as unpredictable, and 63% say low water levels in the rivers are an extremely serious concern.

“Water is the lifeblood of the West,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois of Western Resource Advocates who was also a participant in the Outdoor Retailer panel. 

He mentioned that drought can have a huge economic impact on our region, with water sports  representing a large portion of the outdoor industry. Not to mention the Colorado River is a source of drinking water for nearly 40 million Americans in seven states.

On Thursday, just six hours before a federal deadline, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a Drought Contingency Plan aimed at preventing the Colorado River from falling to catastrophically low levels. The plan will cost Arizona taxpayers $7 million. 

All of this is to say, politicians at the state level are noting the environmental concerns of their constituents. 

“This poll once again shows that Coloradans are adamant about protecting our natural spaces, reversing the harmful effects of climate change, and moving to a future of clean, affordable renewable energy,” said Governor Jared Polis in the State of the Rockies press release. 

With such broad support for conservation issues, Governor Polis is making a strong presence this year at Outdoor Retailer and attended as governor-elect in November to assure people of his plan to defend public lands and promote the outdoor recreation economy. His attendance at the trade show, which moved to Colorado from Utah last year in protest of the state’s public land policies, emphasizes an understanding that the outdoor recreation economy is critical to the state. 

As the outdoor industry engages its growing superpower, we can expect to see both brands and enthusiasts raise their collective voice to bring environmental issues to the fore.