SALT LAKE CITY — Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Bundys, who are at the center of a 10-day siege of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, don't represent the views of Western residents and are merely jockeying for attention.
"The Bundys and those who sympathize with them are far out of touch with most folks living in the West. By and large Westerners do not agree with the policies or sentiments being advocated in Oregon," Salazar said in a Monday teleconference. "Bundy and his ilk are just squeaky wheels getting the grease."
Salazar, a Colorado native who was a U.S. senator and served as Interior secretary from 2008 to 2013, spoke to 2016 poll results on public lands issues released by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project.
The annual Conservation in the West survey — which included Nevada residents for the first time — tapped opinions of 400 registered voters in seven Western states, including Utah.
Salazar said the showdown at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, led by Ammon Bundy — son of Cliven Bundy who had an armed confrontation with the federal government over ranching — does not reflect top concerns among residents of Western states.
"What Westerners are actually concerned about is drought and water scarcity, our dependence on foreign oil, climate change and the outdoor recreation economy. Westerners want our public lands to stay public," he said. "We may not all agree precisely on how to strike the right balance between conservation and development, but anyone who tells us we should hand our American lands over to private owners and to the states are telling us a story that will not stand the test of time."
Interestingly, Utah residents — more than those in any other state involved in the poll — are likely to disagree with Salazar on that point.
When asked if they support or oppose turning national public lands over to the control of the state, only a slight plurality of Utahns said they opposed the move, 47 percent to the 41 percent who said they were in favor of the transfer. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent and involved 400 residents who were close to evenly split among those who identified themselves as Republican and those who said they were "Independent." Fourteen percent said they were Democrat.
West-wide, 58 percent of those polled said they were opposed to handing over national lands to the states, compared to 33 percent who said they were in favor. In a separate question, 66 percent of Utah residents, compared to 22 percent, said they support future presidents' ability to create national monuments.
Utah residents, specifically, said they are in favor of the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument, with 66 percent who signed off on the idea.
Of those residents who took part in the poll, a significant majority said they lived in a big city or the suburbs — 63 percent — compared with 12 percent of those who said they lived in a rural area.
Poll results also indicate that the angst over the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has tempered, with only 25 percent of Utah residents who insist it was a "bad thing," in contrast to 45 percent who say it was a good thing. Another 30 percent remain undecided.
Mark Ward, senior policy analyst with the Utah Association of Counties, said rural voters and urban voters differ distinctly when it comes public lands, something that should be kept in mind with this poll's findings.
"If you don't live in rural Utah you are prone to think of public lands as totally iconic, these vertical up and down, spectacular-every-acre view," he said. "But the reality is while all of Utah is beautiful, the vast majority of the acreage is quite ordinary by everyday standards. It is rangeland, it is desert and it is slopes."
They survey also shows that the majority of Western voters, 52 percent, indicate they support continued oil and natural gas production on public lands, but want stronger safeguards to protect water and the land.
Water, in fact, resonated with Utah voters, with 88 percent of those polled indicating drought is a serious issue and 75 percent who felt conservation should have higher priority than diversion of water of water from rivers in less populated areas.
Another 56 percent of Utah voters said they would be "very willing" to make changes in their household use of water to reduce water by 20 percent, while 35 percent said they would be somewhat willing.
In its sixth year, the State of the Rockies Project explores bi-partisan opinions in the West on conservation, environment, energy and the role of government. For its polling, it uses a national Democratic opinion research firm and the largest Republican polling firm in the country.