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SALT LAKE CITY — Voters in eight Mountain West states say a politician's stance on environmental issues is just as important as the economy, health care and education come Election Day.
That's according to Colorado College's annual State of the Rockies Project, which tries to gauge public opinion across the region on critical issues like drought, climate change and energy, among others.
The combination of unprecedented wildfires, the historic drought, rising temperatures and other environmental issues galvanized Western voters during 2021, Katrina Miller-Stevens, director of the State of the Rockies Project and an associate professor at Colorado College, said in a news release.
"We are seeing a perfect storm of threats that are driving higher levels of concern than ever before for the state of our lands and water in the Mountain West," she said. "Not surprisingly, most voters are aligning behind policies that would help mitigate threats by conserving and protecting more outdoor spaces."
Around 86% of respondents say those issues are important factors at the ballot box — that's an increase from 80% in 2020, and 75% in 2016.
In Utah, 85% of respondents say those issues are important, with 32% saying they are "very important," and 53% saying air quality, water, wildlife and public lands "are one of several issues" they consider when deciding whether to support a politician.
The poll surveyed at least 400 registered voters in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming, amounting to a 3,400-person sample. The survey was conducted between Jan. 5 to Jan. 23 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
Utahns appear to have a different outlook on air pollution when compared to neighboring states. That should come as no surprise, as the Salt Lake Valley is notorious for its winter inversions, usually ranking in the top 10 worst cities for air pollution.
Roughly 69% of respondents in the Beehive State say air pollution and smog is an extremely or very serious problem. That's 13% higher than Colorado and Arizona, tied at second with 56%.
Only 9% said it wasn't a problem.
In early February, lawmakers from Utah's bipartisan Clean Air Caucus rolled out nearly 40 bills and resolutions aimed at combating polluted air, which in January resulted in a stretch of nine days rated moderate to unhealthy.
Utahns are also more concerned about drought than other states in the Mountain West, with 81% saying it's either an extremely or very serious problem. At 80%, Colorado is not far behind, with Nevada coming in third at 77%. Only 2% of Utahns said drought was not a problem, the lowest of any state.
That checks out with a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, which found that 82% of respondents are concerned over current drought conditions in Utah, compared to 17% who said they are not worried.
The results come as a recent report found that the drought in the West is the worst it's been in 1,200 years.
While there was a time in the 1500s when soil moisture content was drier than that of 2000 to 2018, tree ring evidence shows that 2000 to 2021 was the driest 22-year period since at least the year 800, according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox declared a drought emergency in March 2021 and in the summer, he asked all residents, regardless of faith, to join him "in a weekend of prayer" for rain. Cox also recommended $500 million in his budget for water conservation.
Bears Ears National Monument
Pollsters asked Utahns about Bears Ears National Monument, which was established by President Barack Obama in 2016, drastically reduced, along with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, by President Donald Trump in 2017, then reinstated by President Joe Biden in 2021.
About 60% said Biden's move was "more of a good thing," while 30% responded negatively. Roughly 6% had no opinion.
The question is the latest attempt to gauge public opinion around the monument, which has proven to be a difficult task.
A 2016 UtahPolicy.compoll pointed to 35% of respondents who wanted the monument established by Congress, not executive order, and 29% wanted nothing done in the region.
But another 2016 poll, commissioned by the Christian environmental group Creation Justice Ministries, reported that 71% of Utahns were in favor of the monument.
And a 2017 Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 51% of respondents thought the monument was too big.
The cost of living
Some of the fastest-growing and increasingly expensive places in the country are in Mountain West states, and voters are nervous — in every state but New Mexico, 70% of respondents expressed concern about the rising cost of living.
Leading the pack was Montana at 82%, where the median sale price of a single-family home in the state's second most populated county, Gallatin County, is now $725,000.
Second was Utah, with 80% of respondents saying the cost of living is a serious concern. A recent report listed Ogden, Provo and Salt Lake City among the 10 most overvalued housing markets in the U.S., with buyers paying a roughly 50% premium on new homes.