To hear members of the Bundy family and other armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon tell it, they are the brave leading edge, a handful of people willing to act on a widely held belief that the federal government has gone too far in its control and regulation of public lands.
Yet a bipartisan poll released Monday suggests that there is hardly a groundswell of support for many of the ideas the occupiers have proposed, including turning over federal lands to state and local governments or to private owners.
According to the Conservation in the West poll, sponsored by Colorado College and now in its sixth year, 58% of people questioned in seven states in the Mountain West oppose giving state governments control over federal public lands and 60% oppose selling "significant holdings" of public lands, such as national forests, to reduce the budget deficit.
In only one state, Utah, did more people say they supported giving states control, with 47% of those questioned saying they did and 41% saying they did not.
In Nevada, where the Bundy family ranches, sentiment was also relatively narrowly divided, with 52% saying they opposed transferring control and 39% supporting the idea. In the other states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming — support for transferring control ranged from 28% to 37%.
"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," Eric Perramond, a professor who leads Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project, said in a statement.
Ken Salazar, a former secretary of the Interior and a graduate of Colorado College, told reporters in a conference call, "These findings show us that the Bundy family, their militant supporters and the politicians who sympathize with them are far out of touch with most folks living in the West."
The poll of 400 registered voters was conducted in December before the standoff began near remote Burns, Ore. Although Oregon was not among the states surveyed, Dave Metz, one of the private pollsters hired by Colorado College, said Monday that based on past surveys done in Oregon, "If anything, I would expect the responses to be as strong, if not stronger, in the same direction in Oregon."
The survey also showed that 72% of people questioned said that having "national public lands" in their state was an economic benefit.