By Michelle Werts

Yesterday, Colorado College in Colorado Springs released its third annual “Conservation in the West” poll, which illuminates how much western residents value their public lands.

Sprague Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Sprague Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: F. Delventhal/Flickr

Conducted as part of the college’s State of the Rockies project, the bipartisan poll of residents in six states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Montana) revealed that 91 percent of westerners agree that the region’s public lands — we’re talking national parks, forests, monuments, wildlife refuges and the like — are essential to the state’s economy. Drilling a bit deeper, 79 percent of respondents believe that public lands improve their quality of life and 74 percent think they attract high quality employers to the region. These percentages make it hardly surprising that when it comes to selling public lands to corporations for development, 71 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea. While this poll is based on the perceptions of those individuals living in the region, we’ve already discussed a 2012 research report that has the figures to back up how the West’s economy is growing rapidly thanks to public lands. So, it appears that the bottom line is that both people and the economy are recognizing how good public lands are for the West. Now, we just need to make sure those public lands stay healthy.

Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project was founded to help increase public understanding of the vital issues facing the Rocky Mountain region, which include water supply concerns — 27 million people rely on the Colorado River Basin, but climate projections indicate that the future may hold drier conditions for the famed river. Also hampering the West’s waterways is tree loss.

Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Grand Tetons, Wyoming. Credit: Frank Kovalcheck/Flickr

Almost 42 million acres of forest in 10 western states are considered to be dead or dying. Drilling down even further, a deadly disease and a beetle are killing swaths of high-elevation forests throughout the Rockies. And for anyone who has ever gazed at a beautiful mountaintop, you know that the high elevations are where the snow “lives.” The trees that live there, too, help regulate how quickly the snow melts and help filter the water coming from these high sources. In periods of drought or scarcity, their role becomes even more important. So what happens if they’re not there? That’s too scary to even contemplate, which is why we launched our Endangered Western Forests initiative last year.

The initiative has many goals, but ultimately, we’re searching for ways to protect our western forests and improve their health. And we’re doing it in some of the most famous public lands in the U.S.: the Greater Yellowstone Area. With more than three million people visiting Yellowstone National Park alone each summer to partake in its beauty, recreation and wonder, we think it’s an area worth saving — and hope you do to.