Statistics are all around us, in many forms. Sports, health care, business and almost every facet of our society look to numbers to help sort out the world. With so much riding on the line, sound statistical methods and principled research are imperative. Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable. Numbers can be manipulated to support any number of arguments.
Such is the case in Colorado College’s 2016 Conservation in the West poll. Released a few weeks ago, this seven-state survey attempted to gauge public opinion on a number of issues facing the Rocky Mountain states. Highlighted among this year’s findings was a question regarding the transfer of federal lands to Western states:
“Some Members of Congress have proposed giving the (Utah) state government control over national public lands, such as national forests, national monuments, and national wildlife refuges in its borders. The state government would decide the future management of the lands, but state taxpayers would pay all costs, including the cost of maintenance and preventing and fighting wildfires. Do you support or oppose this proposal?”
The results for Utah left me scratching my head — 41 percent in support, 47 percent opposed, 11 percent unsure. How can the state leading the charge in the federal lands transfer movement have such little public support from its own residents? The answer comes in how the question — which forces certain assumptions on the participating individual — was asked.
First, let’s remove one misapprehension: The transfer excludes national parks and leaves national monuments largely untouched. The poll leads participants to believe that all public lands would be turned over, but transfer proponents are seeking multiple-use lands like those managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Such wording surely led those unfamiliar with the transfer movement to see it as an all-out land grab.
Second, the question pushes respondents to believe, wrongly, that state residents would be responsible for picking up the price tag of land management and fire prevention costs. A study released by the Property and Environment Research Center last year found that for every dollar the federal government spends to manage its multiple-use lands, it loses $0.27. States, on the other hand, generate $14.51 for every dollar spent managing lands under their care.
In other words, taxpayers are losing roughly $2 billion a year due to inefficient federal land management. State management of these lands would lower management costs and produce revenue.
Considering these two major flaws in the poll, I was left wondering how Utahns actually feel about the state’s effort to take control of federal land. Luckily, Utah Policy released a poll just a few weeks later on the issue. Its poll involved over twice as many participants; was not just limited to voters but included Utahns from all walks of life; and had a significantly smaller margin of error than the Colorado College poll. Most importantly, however, Utah Policy’s question was far simpler: “Do you support or oppose the state taking control of federal lands?”
The results differed dramatically: 55 percent in support, 39 percent opposed, and 6 percent refusing to answer or didn’t know. The upshot is that Utahns do support our friends, family and neighbors managing our public lands far more than we do D.C. bureaucrats.
We can conclude that Colorado College’s Conservation in the West survey is a push poll that biases results and does not accurately represent how Utahns feel about federal land management. The faculty director of the project, Eric Perramond, said in a press release, “Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most Westerners in this poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region.”
Contrary to Perramond’s statement, Utahns in favor of a transfer do not constitute an ideological fringe. This healthy majority understands that public lands are part of our cultural heritage and need to be protected by those who love and care most for it — the people of Utah.
Matthew Anderson heads Sutherland Institute's Center for Self-Government in the West project.