Poll Analysis: Green America Opposes Bush Environmental Policies

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Americans voice support for environmental regulations and a personal feeling about open spaces.

Times Poll Assoc. Director

     The United States has an intimate relationship with its open spaces—more than seven out of 10 residents said they have visited national parks and nine out of 10 said it is important to them personally that wilderness and open spaces be preserved, according to the latest Los Angeles Times poll. Four in 10 nationwide described themselves as environmentally active.

     The Los Angeles Times Poll surveyed residents nationwide, as well as in four separate western state samples (California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska), and as a group sample of the mountain and desert states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The latter sample is referred to here as "Mountain States" for brevity.

     As a whole, the nation’s sympathies are Green. Despite awarding President Bush a 57% overall job approval rating, only 41% approved of his record on the environment and the survey measured wide opposition to a recent spate of Bush administration environmental rulings. Americans also pointed to the Democrats in Congress as the party that can best be trusted to safeguard the environment.

     From protection of grizzly bear habitats to the imposition of stricter fuel efficiency for Sport Utility Vehicles, the survey found broad support for environmentally protective policies and a desire to see the nation’s leaders care for the country’s natural resources. With the exception of Alaskans, who have a larger personal stake in oil and gas production through state rebates, Americans said they don’t want the search for new sources of energy to impact the environment and are not in favor of drilling for oil on public lands.

George W. Bush and the Environment

     The president’s job approval in handling the environment is far lower (at 41% approval to 38% disapproval nationally) than his overall job rating (57% to 33%) or his rating on the economy (52% to 32%).

     • More Californians disapprove of Bush’s job on the environment than approve by 42% to 33%. Similarly, in Oregon, 41% approve and 46% disapprove, while in Washington his approval is 33% to 49% disapproval.

     • In Alaska, 55% approve of the job he’s doing on the environment, vs. 27% who disapprove and in the Mountain States, a plurality are positive—43% to 33%.

     In addition, a majority (54%) nationwide named the Democrats as the party that can most be trusted to safeguard the environment. Even nearly a quarter of self-described Republicans named the other party as the best one for the job.

     • 82% of self-described Democrats named their party and only 4% said Republicans will do a better job.

     • 36% of independents named Democrats, and 30% said the GOP

     • 23% of Republicans said Democrats are better on the environment vs. 57% who named their own party.

     This finding, along with the lack of public support for Bush administration rulings which some have characterized as anti-environment, may very well be a glimpse into an election-year strategy the Democrats could exploit in an attempt to increase the party’s Congressional presence in 2002.

     Nearly three-quarters of the public said they want the Bush administration to make protection of the environment an important political priority. Another 15% overall said it should be his top priority. However, the survey found Americans are concerned that this is not the case. Almost half (49%) of all Americans said that they think that Bush will go too far in allowing development and exploration of natural resources in wilderness land and nearly six in 10 (58%) nationwide said they think that Bush cares more about the needs of the business community than he does about the environment.

     There is some degree of variation across the West, with Alaskans the least concerned and Washingtonians the most.

     • 58% of Alaskans said business, 11% the environment

     • 63% of respondents in the Mountain States said business, 9% the environment

     • 69% of Californians said Bush cares mor e about business, 9% the environment

     • 70% of Oregon residents said business, 6% the environment

     • 74% of Washingtonians said business, 8% the environment

     The anxiety may be caused by a spate of environmental regulations the Bush administration has ordered which the survey found to be unpopular with most Americans.

CO2 Emissions

     The president recently reversed a campaign promise to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide, saying it would add too much to the cost of power production and that he instead wants to create an overall national energy strategy. Over half (54%) of the American public opposes this decision and a plurality of 45% believe he reversed his position because he and some of his key advisors are too closely allied with the energy industry.

Logging and Road Building in National Forests

     The poll also found little public support for lifting a ban on logging and road building in 60 million acres of national forests ordered by former President Clinton before he left office. Bush is considering lifting the ban because he says it cuts too deeply into the nation’s timber supply. All geographical regions of the country except for Alaska approve of the ban on logging and road building.

     • 58% approve of the ban nationally, 60% in the East, 58% in the Midwest, 53% in the South, and 61% of the West.

     • 63% of Californians approve of the ban, along with 53% of Oregonians and 60% of Washington state residents.

     • Alaskans chart their own course with 37% approval of the ban vs. 58% disapproval.

Opening National Monuments To Commercial Use

     Nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose a Bush proposal that millions of acres designated by President Clinton as national monuments before he left office be opened up for such uses as mining, logging and off-road vehicles. President Bush has indicated his administration is considering opening those regions to commercial use. All geographical regions except for Alaska oppose such a plan.

     • 65% oppose the proposal nationally, including 73% of Easterners, 65% of Midwesterners, 62% of Southerners, and 61% of those living in the West.

     • 66% of Californians oppose it, along with 57% of the Mountain States, 51% of Oregonians, and 58% of Washington state.

     • Once again, Alaskans disagree—supporting such commercial usage 51% to 40%.

Arsenic in Drinking Water

     Nearly three in five nationwide (56%) oppose another Bush decision to overturn a Clinton administration ruling—this one would have reduced arsenic levels in drinking water by 80 percent under the level now allowed. The Bush administration said such a plan would be too costly to local water districts and vowed to find a less expensive way to reduce arsenic levels. Once again, a majority of the American public disagrees with the president. This time, however, the Mountain States join Alaska in being out of step.

     • 61% of Easterners oppose the decision, along with 55% of Midwesterners, 54% of Southerners, and 53% of Westerners.

     • 56% nationwide oppose the Bush decision, along with 60% of Californians, 53% of Oregonians, and 56% of Washington state.

     • In the Mountain States, 45% support Bush’s decision vs. 43% who oppose, and in Alaska it is 43% support to 48% oppose.

Drilling in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Rocky Mountains

     Alaskans have long pushed for the ANWR to be opened for oil exploration, and in Bush they’ve found an ally. The Bush administration has proposed opening the wildlife refuge and some regions of the Rocky Mountains, claiming that drilling can be done in a way that won’t damage fragile ecosystems. Most of the American public disagrees, again with the notable exception of Alaska.

     • In the East, 63% disapprove of drilling in the ANWR and 69% oppose it in the Rockies. In the Midwest it is 62% and 65% respectively, in the South 46% and 48%, while the West disapproves of drilling in those areas by 52% and 51% respectively.

     • Nationally, 55% disapprove of drilling in the ANWR and 57% oppose drilling in the Rockies. In California those numbers are 57% and 64% respectively, and in the Mountain States, 57% and 54%. Oregonians oppose drilling by 64% and 54% respectively, and Washingtonians by 61% and 58%.

     • Alaskans support oil exploration in ANWR by 65% to 34% and think it is a good idea in the Rockies as well, by 51% to 38%.

General Environmental Concerns

     Environmental awareness in the nation is on the rise, the survey found. Thirteen percent overall mentioned environment as the most important problem facing our country today, fourth after the usual triumvirate of economy (36%), crime (21%) and education (15%) found when similar answers to that question are combined. In a Times poll taken last month, only 3% cited the environment as a problem and in January 1998, only 2% gave that as a response.

Some concerns vary by region:

•      In California, 22% cited education and 19% the energy situation. Only 15% mentioned crime and 11% the environment.

     • In the Mountain States about the same number (17%) mentioned the nation’s morals as a problem as did the environment (16%).

     • Oregon residents worry most about social issues such as homelessness and urban problems (25%), followed by the economy (22%) and education (21%).

     • In Washington state, 20% mentioned the environment, more than any other sample region, the same proportion as mentioned education.

     Possibly due to the wide number of different threats to the environment, from global warming to waste dumping or urban sprawl, American’s green sympathies are strong but lack focus. While more than eight in 10 were able to name an environmental problem that concerned them the most, there was very little consensus on what that problem might be.

     Twenty percent of respondents nationwide named "pollution in general" as the most important environmental problem facing the country today, followed by 10% who cited the quality of the air, 10% who mentioned water issues and 8% who are most concerned about the impact of our quest for new sources of energy. Issues of land use and waste were also mentioned (a combined 15%.) Global warming or climate change was mentioned by 6%.

     When asked if that problem has grown better or worse over the last decade, about half said it is now worse, including almost a quarter (24%) who said the problem has become "much worse".

The Economy vs. the Environment

     When asked what was the most important general problem facing the country today, about a quarter nationwide mentioned the economy. Despite Bush administration suggestions that one step toward solution of the energy problems faced in California and other states is to lower pollution standards and loosen restrictions, many Americans (53%) said they are optimistic that economic solutions do not need to be found at the expense of the environment.

     More than half also indicated that if economic growth required environmental degradation, improving the environment should take precedent. It is perhaps an indication of the impact of recent economic concerns on the minds of Americans that when a Gallup/CNN survey asked a similar question in April of 1999, a time when the economy was still going strong, about two thirds replied that the environment should take precedent.

     Most Americans indicated they don’t trust business to self-regulate. Just under a quarter agreed with the statement "Many businesses can be trusted to take good care of the nation’s natural resources, and the government should only intervene in the worst cases." About two thirds agreed instead that "Many businesses will cut corners and damage the environment unless strong government rules and regulations are in place."

     And despite America’s strong historic attachment to the idea of individual control of personal property, almost six in 10 said that it is important to protect endangered species from extinction even if it conflicts with the right of property owners to do what they want with their own land.

Global Warming

     While climate change did not show up as one of the top environmental concerns among Americans, there is a great deal of awareness of the issue. All but a handful of respondents nationwide said they are aware of the issue of global warming. About seven in 10 said they consider it a serious problem, including about a third who said it is "very serious." The theory that human activities rather than natural climate change is to blame for the measurable warming of the earth’s atmosphere has wide popular acceptance here in the United States—six in 10 said it is a manmade problem. About one out of seven respondents said both human and natural causes are to blame.

•      Easterners are the most convinced of the human origins of global warming—75% compared with 56% in the Midwest, 58% in the South, and 53% in the Western portion of the U.S.

•      Among our oversamples in the West, Alaskans are least likely to point the finger at mankind. Only 37% of residents in Alaska blame power plant emissions rather than normal climate change. Californians were similar to the national average at 58%.

     President Bush’s decision not to implement regulations to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants was opposed by over half of Americans. About half also said they felt Bush’s action on this matter was due to his administration’s close ties to the energy industry, rather than because of a valid concern over the scientific evidence.

     And there is strong across-the-nation support for having the United States agree to bind itself to the provisions of the Kyoto Accord. This international protocol calls for limiting production of CO2 and other gases which are thought to cause global warming, and after hearing arguments for and against, about six in 10 Americans indicated they think the country should do its part.

     There is so much concern about the issue of global warming that over half of Americans (52%) said they would support increasing the use of nuclear power as a source of energy if it meant reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, the production of which may contribute to global warming.

     • The idea of increasing reliance on nuclear power plants found highest support in the Mountain States—60% thought it was a good idea there, compared with 49% each in Alaska and Oregon. California was slightly higher than the nation in its support for a nuclear solution at 57%.

     This issue of nuclear power is still a negative hot-button for some residents however, especially in Alaska, where three in 10 said they "strongly oppose" increasing the country’s reliance on that source. Nationwide, about a third were opposed.

National Parks and Forests

     This survey’s findings mirror government statistics that show Americans love their national parks. Almost half of survey respondents said they visit regularly. Nearly a quarter said they visit yearly, and another 22% said they visit every other year or so. Overall, 72% of Americans have been to a national park at least once.

     Residents of the Mountain States and Alaska visit national parks the most often, which is not surprising since most of the nation’s parkland is in their backyards. In the Mountain States, 46% indicated they visit a national park at least once a year and that number rises to almost six in 10 (59%) among residents of Alaska.

     Anyone who visits the nation’s most popular parks knows that they suffer from problems of overuse and that facilities in some cases are inadequate to meet the demand. There has been some debate over whether to concentrate resources on upgrading existing parks before expanding the park system, or whether to add more land. The survey found majority support nationwide for upgrades over expansion—over half (55%) said parks should be improved first, while 38% disagreed.

     The idea of imposing user fees for use of public lands is not unpopular with the public. The U.S. Forest Service has begun charging visitors to enter national forests, and just about half (51%) nationwide said they wouldn’t mind expanding that concept to all public lands. There was also strong support (70%) for limiting access to the most popular parks rather than building roads and facilities to accommodate more users, and even stronger support (82%) for implementing park-and-ride policies in which visitors would park their vehicles and use public transportation to move about.

     When it comes to the management of the park system, Americans support, if not overwhelmingly or uniformly, leaving the federal government in charge. Fifty-six percent nationwide—dropping to 44% in California—said they think the government can do the best job of managing the nation’s parks. Only three in 10 nationwide, rising to 36% in Alaska, think private business would do a better job. And most (61% overall) think that all Americans should have an equal say in the management of parks, rather than giving more clout to those that live nearby. Alaska residents once more disagree—54% said locals should have more of a say.

Wilderness and Wildlife Habitats

     Americans profess a great personal belief in the importance of keeping portions of the country open and wild. Over half (51%) nationwide, rising to nearly six in 10 (58%) in the Mountain States said it is of extreme personal importance to them that open spaces are preserved and nine in 10 (91% overall) said it is important at some level. Approximately 5% of American land is preserved as wilderness (this does not include national parks) and half said that is just the right amount. Another 40% overall said it is too little and 3% said it is too much.

     Only three in 10 nationwide favor opening wilderness lands to motor vehicles, while 62% would oppose such a move. Alaskans once again, are the exception to the American rule. Fifty-four percent said they favor the opening of wilderness to the use of motor vehicles such as snow mobiles, off road vehicles, and motorcycles.

     Just about half of Americans (53%), including those that live in the most affected states support restoring wolves and grizzly bears to some of the wildland habitats they have been driven off due to ranching and other human land-use. An even greater proportion (56%) of those living in the Mountain States where the impact of the re-introduction of these large predators would be felt the most, supported the idea.

     There is even less equivocation about protecting the areas where wolves and grizzly bears have survived. Almost 7 in 10 overall, dropping to just over six in 10 in Alaska, favor protecting the habitats where they still live, even if it means restricting commercial use of those lands.

Energy and Conservation

     In keeping with the overall theme of support for rules and regulations that would improve the environment, over half (55%) nationwide said they would strongly support requiring an increase in fuel efficiency for SUVs, even if it meant a rise in prices. Three quarters over all said they would support such regulations strongly or somewhat.

Most Americans favor a combination of conservation and finding new oil supplies to improve the nation’s energy situation. Fifteen percent said conservation was the best policy, 17% said they favored focusing on finding new oil and gas supplies, and 61% said they wanted the nation’s energy policy to include both equally.

How the Poll Was Conducted

     The Times Poll contacted 813 adults nationwide by telephone April 21–26. In addition, separate samples of 512 Californians, 553 adults residing in the Mountain States (which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada), 332 Oregonians, 317 Washingtonians and 322 Alaskans were contacted. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, California, the Mountain States, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the national sample is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, for California and the Mountain States it is 4 points and for Oregon, Washington and Alaska it is 5.5 points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.