How Western States Stack Up As Public Lands Defenders

How Western States Stack Up As Public Lands Defenders

November 14, 2017 by Jennifer


Last month, the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver, Colorado–based nonprofit, published a comprehensive report that compared state public lands policy across the Mountain West. Eight states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico—were scored. The results were also discussed on the organization’s podcast, Go West, Young Podcast.

The Trump administration’s hostility to public lands was part of the impetus for the report, the authors told Outside. Wary of focusing its mission solely on federal accountability, Western Priorities also wanted to examine what states could do on their own. But understanding state policy when it comes public lands is challenging; unlike federal law, tracking state-level regulation gets messy.

“We try to be a data-driven organization,” says Aaron Weiss, media director at Western Priorities, “and that tends to be fairly easy on the national level, because, at least up until now, DOI and Forest Service were good about collecting and disseminating data.” If you couldn’t figure something out, “you could usually call up someone at the Park Service or at BLM and figure out how to get that data. It’s much harder to do at the state level.”

That’s because the way states regulate their local public lands varies widely. “What counts as a spill in one state doesn’t count in another,” Weiss says. In that light, Western Priorities set out to research and compare state policies “apples to apples.” The project, led by Western Priorities’ Sara Rose Tannenbaum, took about eight months to research and involved somewhere between 80 and 100 interviews with policymakers and related experts. Western Priorities chose to score states in three categories: lands and access, outdoor recreation, and responsible energy use. Montana and Colorado received the highest overall grades, but there was still a good deal of divergence within each category.

The results look at what states are doing well when it comes to public lands protections, as well as how they can improve and adopt best practices from one another. (Charted above are the states’ total scores from all three categories, with the highest possible score being 33.)

“This can be a useful tool to people as they’re trying to aid their state in improving, or branching out, or being innovative,” Tannenbaum says. “States really have a lot to learn from one another. It’s important to celebrate what’s worth celebrating in your state and also identify moments for improvement.”

We broke down how the states did in each category and why.

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